Just a few days from now, a symbol of Berkeley’s commitment to a high quality of life will be smashed into dust and rubble, loaded onto trucks and hauled to a landfill.
Demolition is scheduled to begin within the coming week on the Warm Pool, which provided exercise and therapy to the elderly, the disabled, the injured and parents with young children from 1983 until it was padlocked in December.
The disappearance of this much-loved indoor public pool on the Berkeley High School campus should not be blamed on school administrators, who say they need the space for new gyms and classrooms to alleviate overcrowding. But this demolition — with no replacement and no other equivalent facility in the East Bay — is undeniably a sign that our community’s allegiance to health and recreation for all ages and all ability levels is fraying at the seams.
About a mile away, another sign of community decay is at Willard Middle School, where the outdoor public pool that had served South Berkeley residents since 1964 is now filled with dirt. Only some scraggly weeds stick up where generations of children splashed happily and learned to swim.
But there’s hope. Berkeley City Council is actively considering placing a bond measure on the November ballot to save the city’s municipal pools. The Warm Pool would be rebuilt at West Campus, Willard Pool would be dug out and renovated and King and West Campus outdoor pools would get needed repairs. The council is scheduled to vote June 26 on whether to green-light this measure for the November election, with final approval in July.
The prospect has already energized a grassroots organizing effort by schoolchildren, South Berkeley residents, the elderly, disabled, parents and swimmers from all across Berkeley. All of us in this coalition have a deep love and respect for the role that aquatics can play as a bulwark of public health and as a democratic focus of community life. We are excited by the chance to make this bond measure a reality, and we are looking forward to an election campaign that is inspiring and fun.
The bond measure’s initial price tag is $20 million, although we hope the City Council can be persuaded to economize on staff overhead and reduce the total cost. In any case, the investment will be a prudent step forward. Like any homeowner with a 50-year-old house that has never seen substantive repairs and now needs a major renovation, Berkeley residents now need to take out a collective loan and invest for the next half-century of continued access to pools for the people. No homeowners would allow the roof on their kids’ bedroom to cave in because of neglect and then would simply demolish that part of the house. Instead, we take care of our legacy and our children’s future. That’s just who we are, as individuals and as a community.
A similar bond measure with a somewhat higher cost failed by a whisker in the June 2010 primary election. Measure C received 62.2 percent of the vote, just under the two-thirds necessary to win. It was a good showing despite the low voter turnout of only 37 percent, which we believe skewed the results. In this November’s presidential election, turnout is expected to be more than 70 percent, thus triggering the political rule of thumb that larger turnouts favor community investment initiatives such as Berkeley’s pools.
Ironically, despite the city’s tough fiscal situation, now is an excellent time to invest in the pools. Bond interest rates are at historic lows, and because of the city’s low level of bonded debt and the relatively recession-proof local economy, Berkeley has a Standard & Poor’s bond credit rating of AA+, putting the city in the highest 1 percent of cities nationwide. As a result of all this, Berkeley can now borrow capital funds at rock-bottom cost.
Berkeley’s local tax rates may seem high, but they are on par with our neighboring cities. According to a city manager presentation to the City Council on Feb. 28, the citywide tax burden is only slightly higher than Oakland’s and slightly lower than Albany’s.
As has been widely discussed, the city’s annual budget has a growing problem with unfunded liabilities, partly because of soaring pension obligations. This must be addressed promptly, and the city says it is attempting to do so. But to equate that problem with the city’s solid foundation for long-term capital investments, as some people have attempted, is to compare apples and oranges.
Many years ago, in the middle of the Great Depression, a few civic-minded Berkeley citizens with a long view stepped forward to help create Tilden Park. It was seen by some others at the time as a foolhardy waste of scarce public funds. But generations later, we are all infinitely grateful for that early generation’s wisdom and generosity.
Let us all be so wise and so generous in 2012. The pools are a legacy that will greatly enrich our own lives and those of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Robert Collier, Ed Gold and Maggie Knutson are co-chairs of the Berkeley Pools Campaign, berkeleypools.org, which is organizing the effort for a pools bond measure on the November ballot. Gold also is chair of the city’s Commission on Aging and is a member of the city’s Commission on Disability; Knutson is a fifth-grade teacher at John Muir Elementary School.