City Council updated on parks, unfunded liabilities at special meeting

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Berkeley City Council convened Tuesday for a special meeting and heard two presentations: a projects update from the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront department and an outline of city options to address unfunded liabilities tied to employee benefits.

Scott Ferris, the director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Waterfront department, presented the council with an overview of currently funded projects and currently unfunded needs. In his presentation, he reviewed three distinct aspects of the department — parks, waterfront and camps — and provided specific examples of proposed and in-progress projects.

The department currently receives $1.4 million a year from the annual budget allocation for parks and $250,000 for waterfront, yet it holds a total of $66 million in unfunded park capital needs as well as $41.1 million in unfunded waterfront capital needs, according to the presentation.

“Berkeley has amazing resources in terms of recreation that aren’t really available to other residents in other communities,” Ferris said at the meeting. “We have resident camps in Yosemite, Tahoe and near the Russian River. In the Berkeley waterfront, you can ride your bike, walk your dog, fly a kite, while enjoying a panoramic view of the bay. … And now, you can catch a commuter ferry from San Fransisco and back.”

Liza McNulty, capital improvements program manager for camps, identified cost estimates for projects to improve and maintain the Berkeley Echo Lake Camp, the Berkeley Tuolumne Camp and the Berkeley Cazadero Camp — all of which have suffered from varying levels of natural damage within the past few years.

Several public commenters at the meeting expressed support for the allocation of funding toward the Berkeley Tuolumne Camp project. The Berkeley Tuolumne Camp was substantially destroyed by the 2013 Rim Fire, according to the presentation. Steve Geahry, president of the Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, announced the intent of the organization to donate an initial $50,000 toward the rebuild effort.

“We are united in one goal — to rebuild Tuolumne Camp so it can once again bring families and our community together to enjoy nature and strengthen relationships,” Geahry said at the meeting.

Funding for the project was approved by the council during its regular meeting later that evening.

At the meeting, City Council also heard a presentation by Mary Beth Redding, vice president of Bartel Associates LLC, about a study of the city’s pension and other post-employment benefits, or OPEB, funding.

The final recommendations of the presentation came down to longterm investment in the OPEB trust fund to generate more earnings, an increase in OPEB funding by an additional $4.5 million per year and the establishment of a supplemental trust for the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS. The recommended supplemental trust would increase city investment by an initial $3 million, $4 million the following year and $5.5 million the year after, to assist in meeting CalPERS requirements.

Councilmember Kate Harrison raised financial questions about the suggested OPEB and CalPERS actions falling in the same year. She proposed waiting on the establishment of the CalPERS trust rather than implementing both at once.

“You’re asking us to take two big bites at the exact same time, and they happen to line up in the same year,” Harrison said.

Edward Booth covers city government. Contact Edward Booth at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Edward_E_Booth.