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The Berkeley Pools Battle

Backers of a June parcel tax say popular swimming pools will close without it, but opponents say the $22.5 million measure is too expensive.

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Turbulence is troubling the waters at Berkeley's four city swim centers, as the battle over a pools tax edges toward the June 8 election. Measure C, the lone local item on the Berkeley ballot, is a parcel tax that would float bonds to renovate Willard and West Campus pools, relocate the warm pool — now at Berkeley High and slated for demolition in 2011 — and build a new competitive pool at King Middle School. The $22.5 million measure includes maintenance and operation of all four pools.

Without the bond, Willard Pool will close in July and the warm pool won't be replaced. Measure C proponents say the deteriorating Willard Pool is a precious asset for both Willard Middle School students and the south Berkeley community that should be repaired. They say losing the warm, 91-degree pool would deprive many seniors and disabled people of their only mode of exercise.

But opponents argue that upgraded pools would benefit a small slice of the population and the measure would further squeeze the city's already overburdened taxpayers. Counting the UC Berkeley and YMCA pools, residents already have an adequate choice of swim venues other than city pools, opponents say. Berkeleyans Against Soaring Taxes, the landlord group Berkeley Can Do Better, and the Council of Neighborhood Associations are leading the charge against Measure C, which needs a two-thirds vote to pass.

"Why is something that is used by so few getting this whole, large sum?" asked Marie Bowman, chair of the anti-tax group. She argued that the measure focuses narrowly on swimmers, rather than taking the larger parks and recreation needs into account, especially given a projected $16 million budget shortfall and likely cuts in recreation programs. "This city is for everybody. Recreation is for everybody. We really have to look at the entire city and see what our needs are."

Robert Collier, co-chair of the Yes on C Campaign, doesn't deny that the direct beneficiaries of the tax are just a segment of the Berkeley population. He argues, however, that city efforts on behalf of targeted sectors of the community are precisely what bring people to Berkeley. He points to the uniqueness of the Ed Roberts campus that will serve disabled people — now under construction near the Ashby BART station — and lauds the city's senior centers. "We have wonderful senior centers," he said. "They cost a pile of money. Are they too expensive? Some people said at the time [they were built], they were. 'We're spending too much money on those darn old folks.' This is the quality of life we want. These are our principles."

Robert Cabrera of Berkeley Can Do Better opposes Measure C, mostly because of the tax hikes multi-unit property owners will face — and some of their tenants will bear. The Measure C tax rate is based on a property's square footage. A property owner with a 1,900 square-foot house would pay an average of $70 per year over thirty years. Similarly, a commercial property owner with 10,000 square feet would pay an average of $369 per year over thirty years. (At the end of thirty years, a reduced assessment continues for maintenance and operations costs, with yearly cost-of-living increases.)

"The only way a landlord can pass the [new tax] on is by increasing the rent on new tenants," Cabrera said. Berkeley's rent law prohibits passing tax increases on to tenants in rent-controlled units, unless the pass-through is specified in the ballot measure. So landlords will likely pass the increases on to tenants living in non-rent-controlled units — those built after 1980 — and to vacant rent-controlled units.

According to a 2008 city report, a Berkeley property owner with a 1,900 square-foot home, with the assessed value of $350,000, pays about $5,350 in property and parcel taxes each year. Measure C, like some of the other assessments, includes a clause exempting residents earning less than $35,700 annually from the tax.

Collier concedes that living in Berkeley is expensive. "Berkeley has a high quality of life; nobody ever said it was cheap," he said. "We pay for our housing and the wonderful municipal services that we enjoy. They add to our quality of life."

Berkeleyans Against Soaring Taxes fought and defeated four tax measures in 2004, but unsuccessfully battled tax measures in 2006 and 2008. Bowman says her group is not part of the larger anti-tax movement. In fact, she says her organization would have backed a more modest version of Measure C — refurbishing all four pools, rather than rebuilding two from scratch. "There are a lot of reasonable options," Bowman said, adding that refurbishing the pools rather than demolishing two of them would keep costs down.

The new warm pool is planned for the school district's West Campus, but opponents contend that disabled people and seniors can use the YMCA warm pool instead. However, JoAnn Cook, the other Measure C campaign co-chair and long-time warm-pool advocate, said a city-schools task force investigated using YMCA pools instead of rebuilding the warm pool, and found that the Y's warm pool is too shallow for proper exercise for many disabled people. "It works okay for some exercises that folks do, but one of the advantages of having a warm pool is that people can become totally immersed and weightless," Cook said. "It's fascinating to watch folks who are in such bad shape; they come in, in a wheelchair, and come down the lift and they get into the water — and it's as if they have a different body."

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