BERKELEY -- Falling behind on the upkeep of its 52 parks, city leaders are considering new taxes and eliminating city jobs to pay for millions of dollars in needed repairs.
Unfunded projects in the parks department, such as fixing old play structures, resurfacing tennis courts, tearing down old buildings and fixing walkways. now totals about $32 million. And a parks tax used for daily maintenance that is levied on homeowners and other property owners has an $850,000 deficit.
"Essentially the parks tax fund will run out of money at the end of 2014 unless we deal with it in terms of increasing revenues or decreasing expenses or some combination of both," said Scott Ferris, acting director of the parks recreation and waterfront department.
Ferris, who gave a presentation to the City Council on Tuesday night during a special work session, said he will come back in May with specific proposals for fixing the parks tax fund deficit.
"For taxpayers, we really need to look over the budget to see if there is some other way to pay for it rather than going back to the residents to ask for more revenue," said Councilman Gordon Wozniak. "We have to be careful about going back to the well too often."
City Manager Christine Daniel told the council one idea is to combine several divisions within the parks department to save money, but the city has not yet approached the unions on the topic.
Berkeley's parks are in varying degrees of upkeep. The 13-acre San Pablo Park is in very good shape with new basketball courts, good tennis courts and a recreation center. But the James Kenny Community Center at James Kenny Parkhas rotting outside walls. A clubhouse at the7-acre John Hinkel park in the hills is structurally unsafe, partly covered in graffiti and needs to be torn down. The tennis and basketball courts at Grove Park need to be fixed.
The city's park tax charges home and business owners close to 12 cents a square foot on their buildings to pay for parks maintenance, which currently brings in close to $10 million a year. An owner of a 1,000 square foot home pays about $120 a year.
In addition to the landscaping upkeep at all the parks, the parks tax pays for 13 sports fields, 50 sport courts, 63 play structures, five community centers, two pools and 45,000 street trees, Ferris said.
Raising the parks tax might be a hard sell. Last November, three Berkeley ballot measures asked for new taxes and only one, for street paving, passed. Twoothers, which would have funded new pools and pool maintenance, lost.
"Nothing seems tolerable these days," said City Councilwoman Susan Wengraf. "Measure M passed because it was for street paving, and everybody wants paved streets. I guess we'd have to do some polling to see if a parks tax had a chance. Whatever it is, we need to get on top of it."
Councilman Jesse Arreguin said that with a growing population in Berkeley, the city needs more open space and more parks and that is going to take money.
"We're creating more housing, we're planning on more people," Arreguin said. "I understand we have a limited budget already, but the more people that come, the more open space we need."
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.