Berkeley's Stormwater Property Tax: Where's the Money?
L A Wood, Berkeley Daily Planet, October 29-November 1, 2004
For nearly a hundred years, Berkeley has struggled to
maintain its storm system of inlets, culverts and pipes that carry rain
and other surface waters to our creeks and into the San Francisco Bay.
Historically, our city has always placed a very low priority on the
general maintenance and the annual repairs of the storm system. However,
in 1992, there was a serious legislative move to fix Berkeley’s
beleaguered storm system when voters authorized a new stormwater property
Now, more than a dozen years later, Berkeley’s half-inflated stormwater
program has finally hit bottom. This crisis has raised questions of
fund misrepresentation and program mismanagement. Voters deserve to
be told the truth about Berkeley’s Clean Water tax dollars and
why this mandated program has been allowed to go down the drain.
Some voters may remember the stormwater initiative back
in the early 1990s. The idea of a storm tax was sold to residents with
the rhetoric of environmental protection, and moreover, with the provision
that this tax would be a placed into a designated fund. In the beginning,
the stormwater fund was never intended to fully support all our municipal
stormwater activities or to completely pay for the system’s under-funded
capital improvements. This fund was adopted to help support the city’s
stormwater permit process with its newly mandated state and federal
The stormwater property tax also funded Berkeley’s participation
in the Alameda County stormwater support group, a consortium of East
Bay cities that share consultants and work together to meet the legislative
requirements of the Clean Water Act. They identified several existing
municipal activities that are required by our federal stormwater permit,
including street sweeping and storm drain cleaning.
Although these costs had traditionally been paid out of the general
fund, the City of Berkeley began to transfer ALL the costs for these
pre-existing maintenance tasks to the stormwater fund. The storm property
tax initiative was not meant to simply be financial relief for general
fund activities. The long-term impact of this funding shift has struck
a fatal blow to the development of the city’s stormwater program.
Predictably, this fund is broke, which in turn is being used to justify
no improvement in performance.
The annual assessment of 1.9 million dollars for the storm fund has
been used for some maintenance costs, but with almost no money allocated
to capital improvements. Today, this practice continues to have undeniable
consequences. Recent emergency repairs of the collapsed culvert downtown
and past flooding problems have all been exacerbated by the lack of
an active replacement program of the system’s aging components.
The contamination of Blackberry Creek several months ago is a perfect
example. Though the city was quick to claim victory in fixing the pipe
break near the creek, the fact is that this “fix” represented
nearly all of this year’s capital allotment for stormwater improvements.
Much like the tale of the little Dutch boy plugging up the hole in the
seawall, we are trying to shore up a rapidly deteriorating storm system
with a convenience-store approach that has forced taxpayers into paying
top dollar for these unscheduled repairs. Even more troubling, there
now seems to be no escape from the growing number of emergency repairs
or to head off the serious flooding likely to occur during the rainy
In the last dozen years, our local legislators have missed numerous
opportunities to raise the stormwater tax through another ballot measure.
Granted, culverts and storm drains are not very sexy issues, but in
terms of budget outlay, the storm system’s infrastructure has
always been a costly and critical expenditure.
However, the last decade of city budgets shows inadequate funding in
this area which has led to a backlog of necessary repairs that adds
up to tens of millions of dollars. Lack of capital improvements is not
the only problem plaguing this program. Even street sweeping and storm
basin cleaning are currently at the same level, or lower, than they
were twelve years ago. When some stormwater consortium members began
to increase permit activities, like Oakland did with its street sweeping,
Berkeley chose to opt out.
Public Works, which manages the city’s stormwater program, has
had difficulty keeping up with our permit’s requirements. In fact,
Berkeley’s permit should now be called into default over Public
Works’ failure to implement inspection programs for both commercial
businesses and restaurants.
Unquestionably, city staff has provided disastrously poor direction
for our stormwater program at the expense of both taxpayers and environmental
protection. In private industry, the magnitude of this budgetary bungling
would have caused heads to roll. Furthermore, this failure is shared
with the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Water Control Board which,
in each round of program review, has continued to exempt consortium
members from Clean Water compliance. The board’s message to do
what is “practical” has stifled the development of our county’s
stormwater program and continues to prop up Berkeley’s Clean Water
California Regional Water Quality Control
Board San Francisco Bay Region (94K pdf)
EXECUTIVE OFFICER’S REPORT A Monthly Report to the Board and Public
Annual Review on
Alameda County Stormwater Program Performance (136K pdf) April 11,
Note: Regional Water Quality Control Board-Berkeley's Stormwater Program