Some have claimed that progressives “ruin” cities. We must prove them wrong.
When I ran for the City Council District 2 seat, I committed to a vision of a revitalized, rejuvenated West Berkeley: seismic retrofits and ADA upgrades to the Frances Albrier Community Center, a new swimming pool and freshly-paved streets with improvements needed to slow traffic for neighbors of all ages and abilities. Due to shortfalls in the city’s capital budget and cost overruns for T1 projects, this vision now seems further out of reach.
We entrust the government with stewardship of the public commons and providing public goods. With liabilities likely to exceed assets and future costs projected to exceed revenues, what looms reflects an imminent erosion of this sacred trust. I’ve heard consistently from Berkeley residents and voters that the community’s disposition to invest in significant infrastructure upgrades hinges on this fragile bond of trust between City Hall and residents. There is no greater threat to this than the failure to maintain our assets.
With Berkeley’s Marina fund in the red, abysmal lack of safe infrastructure and vacant commercial storefronts, residents often question the pursuit of new initiatives.
When Berkeley pursues another revenue measure to modernize our city, the best thing council can do is double down on the stewardship of our assets and maintenance of basic services. That means following through with commitments to reduce vehicle miles traveled by at least 25% to decarbonize transportation; engineering-first solutions to eliminate traffic violence; implementing modern technologies to investigate and intercept crime; and making our emergency response systems more resilient against disasters.
The law requires cities to maintain balanced budgets. We must also ensure that the costs of public services and infrastructure don’t impose liabilities that limit opportunities for future households. As our city auditor often reminds us, the longer we defer much-needed maintenance on our public assets — roads, sidewalks, docks, parks, et cetera — the greater their future replacement costs will be. Because of these constraints, launching new programs without sustained revenue sources risks sobering tradeoffs down the line, even if they sound bold and progressive.
We cannot recruit, train and retain talented staff if we set them up to fail. Municipal workers deserve a supportive community that appreciates and compensates them competitively.
Policymakers and residents increasingly worry about a political-economic “doom loop” of declining revenues, disinvestment and capital flight eviscerating cities and local businesses. Moreover, inaction on climate would impose severe costs disproportionately on communities least responsible and least able to bear the burden of carbon emissions.
At the same time, I don’t believe in a zero-sum tradeoff between progressivism and sound governance. Berkeley is not only a haven for tolerance, activism and free expression but also cutting-edge life sciences and green innovation. The “two Berkeleys” must coexist: talented scientists and artists from all over the world yearn to come here, like many of you. The best incentive for equitable economic development is a thriving community in a well-managed and practical city grounded in today’s reality.
Budgeting for basic services and operations assumes a growing tax base to cover rising costs. As a progressive city, we compete with neighbors on service quality and resilience of our environment. Today’s researchers are tomorrow’s innovators — we should ensure that they remain tomorrow’s Berkeley taxpayers. We cannot keep borrowing from the future without laying the groundwork for a healthier community now.
Before we can save the world, our city has to fix its streets, upgrade its parks, defend the safety of its neighborhoods, and enable local businesses to thrive. That’s what municipalities are for.
Terry Taplin is the city of Berkeley’s District 2 council member and the Public Safety Policy Committee chair.