Berkeley City Council refers Parks Tax measure to city manager

Hao-Wei Lin/Staff

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A measure to increase the annual Parks Tax in Berkeley may appear on the city’s November 2012 ballot — part of a larger effort to offset various funding deficits faced by the city through ballot measures.

The measure would increase the rate of the city’s Parks Tax to solve an annual projected operational shortfall of $462,000 over the next three years and provide additional funding for annual park maintenance. At its meeting Tuesday, Berkeley City Council referred the measure to the city manager’s office to postpone discussion until its May 1 meeting.

According to the council recommendation, if the measure does not appear on the November ballot, the $2.3 million currently in the tax’s reserve balance would run out in three years due to general maintenance projects and annual staff pay.

The recommendation, which was submitted to the council by the Parks and Recreation Commission, proposes increasing the tax rate enough to generate approximately $1.19 million in new annual revenue.

The Parks Tax has been in place since May 1997 and currently sits at approximately 12 cents per square foot. The tax could be raised by 2 percent in June, an increase that would raise approximately $190,000 in additional annual revenue — still not enough to fill the annual structural deficit, according to the council recommendation.

“The Parks Tax … has taken significant hits in the past few years because we are (dependent on) whether we appear on the ballot,” said Scott Ferris, the city’s interim parks and recreation director. “This is not unlike other funds in the city.”

Whether or not the council decides to put the tax rate increase on the November ballot, voters will still have the option to renew the current tax rate for four years.

The discussion of potential ballot measures to offset costs of the city’s infrastructure is not new to the city.

The city held a series of workshop sessions last fall to address $500 million worth of infrastructure improvements to be made in the city that could result in potential bond measures on the November 2012 ballot, according to Councilmember Gordon Wozniak.

A firm hired by the city conducted a community survey between March 14 and March 19 to help the council determine which infrastructure and maintenance projects to put on the November ballot.

Fifty-eight percent of city residents who participated in the survey ranked improving parks and playgrounds as “less important” than other infrastructure projects, according to survey results in a city staff report presented at a special meeting of the council Tuesday.

Among the highest priorities from the survey results were fixing storm drains, protecting watersheds and paving and repairing streets, which 68 percent of residents who were surveyed marked “extremely or very important,” according to the report.

Wozniak said that given the city’s current economic situation, there is a lack of strong support for most bond measures.

“At some point you have to come up with a way to pay for aging infrastructure given economic and political realities,” Wozniak said. “There are many people hurting who may not be able to afford costs at this time.”

Anjuli Sastry covers city government.