City Council and community members talk costs of pools planning process

Mary Zheng/Staff

The Berkeley City Council and community members raised concerns at a work session Tuesday night that an over-evaluation of non-construction related expenses has hindered the city’s efforts to implement a ballot measure to save its pools.

At the work session, William Rogers, director of the city’s Parks Recreation and Waterfront Department, responded to allegations that the city designated unreasonably high percentages for soft costs and contingencies when trying to pass Measure C, a $22.5 million bond to fund renovations to the city’s pool system that failed to garner the required two-thirds vote in June last year.

The soft costs and contingency for Measure C were set at 45 percent and 17.5 percent respectively, according to Robert Collier, co-chair for the Berkeley Pools Campaign. Soft cost money would have been allocated to all non-construction related aspects of the project, while contingency is set aside to prepare for unexpected conditions.

Measure C — which gained only 62.24 percent — would have raised $22.5 million in bonds to allocate money to retrofit Willard Pool and the West Campus pool, replace the city’s warm water pool and construct an all-purpose pool at Martin Luther King Jr., Middle School.

“We had a professional estimating firm review and assess the project … soft costs are non-construction costs — 34 to 45 percent is the industry standard,” Rogers said. “We rightfully place a high value on public input, but this leads to design changes.”

Collier said that such high percentages do not make sense from a comparative standpoint, given that bond measures for various Berkeley Unified School District construction projects, the Albany Unified School District’s pools project and the Berkeley Public Library renovation have not placed nearly as high percentages on their projects.

However, Rogers said these cities and school districts may not be including all the expenditures the city has for soft costs.

“Measure C would have been a $16 million bond measure instead of a $22.5 million one if the city had used the established formulas,” Collier said. “This may well have tipped the balance between victory and defeat … all we needed was another 4.5 percent of the vote.”

City Manager Phil Kamlarz attributed the high costs of planning to efforts to involve the community — the city spent $560,000 on its pools planning process.

“One of the realities in Berkeley is public process,” Kamlarz said at the meeting.

Councilmember Susan Wengraf expressed her concern that the city is not using its money effectively through its public process.

“When you look at the budget, it’s pretty standard to write in contingency and soft costs, but when you’re looking at costs and contingencies that add up to 50 percent of the amount, it’s pretty alarming,” Wengraf said.

Kamlarz said money used for the planning process could have been spent on fixing and maintaining the facilities at the city’s King and West Campus pools, the only two pools the city will be operating after Dec. 15, when the city’s warm water pool is set to shut down.

Council members, after hearing citizens vocalize their discontent over the impending closure of the warm water pool, highlighted the need to outline a set of priorities, with pools potentially at the top of such a list.

“For me, the warm water pool is an essential priority of the city services and is something that is really in the top tier of priorities — it has to be maintained and replaced,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington at the meeting. “In previous iterations we went to the ballot with all four pools being fully funded … I think we need to put smaller ideas out and poll on them. [— h]Half a loaf is better than one.”

However, Wengraf said that in moving forward, such prioritization will prove difficult, given Berkeley’s political climate and lack of funding for city projects.

“Everything in Berkeley becomes so political … we tried to include everybody’s special interest in the bond measure and it got so big nobody would vote for it,” she said. “As a politician, nobody really wants to go out there on a limb and say we’re only gonna serve this community, not that community.”

Sarah Mohamed is the lead city government reporter.