Public Comment

Berkeley Budget SOS--Fixing the City's Sewers

By Barbara Gilbert
Monday March 21, 2011 - 02:24:00 PM

Berkeley Budget SOS is a civic organization dedicated to fiscal clarity, accountability and sustainability in the City of Berkeley. Of particular concern to us is a complete audit of the City’s long-term financial obligations and needs, including those in relation to the City’s physical infrastructure. We are wondering why our water drainage and sewer system is in such apparent disrepair given the substantial annual sums of money apparently available. 

The City of Berkeley’s sanitary sewer system consists of storm drains and sanitary sewers. 

Operation, maintenance, and capital improvements are to be paid with segregated and dedicated funds from two sources: the Sanitary Sewer Fund and the Clean Storm Water Fund. Additionally, under the City’s sewer lateral ordinance, the City has no responsibility for the maintenance, repair and replacement of the sewer laterals serving individual properties—these are 100% the separate responsibility of the owners. 

The Sanitary Sewer Fund has revenues of about $14M annually which are collected for the City by EBMUD. This “Sewer Service Fee” shows as a separate line item of the bi-monthly EBMUD bill. The amount charged in Berkeley is based on water usage. A study I conducted in 2006 indicated that Berkeley’s charges for homeowners, businesses and other users was two to five times higher than for users in Emeryville and Oakland. I note that my monthly cost has been about $40 for very moderate water usage. 

The Clean Storm Water Fund has revenues of about $2.5M annually and is collected as part of the property tax bill issued by Alameda County. (There is also an annual “in-lieu” payment by UCB included in the $2.5M total). Per City documents (the FY 2011 Mid-Biennial Budget Update), the property tax amount is supposed to be capped at $34 per homeowner property. I note that I was charged $80.52 for 2010-2011, and others I know have also been charged more than the stated $34.00. These moneys are to be spent on “the maintenance and improvement of the City’s storm water drainage system”. It is not at all clear why a fund separate from the Sanitary Sewer Fund was necessary. It is also unknown whether neighboring jurisdictions have a similar special water/sewer tax. Now that the City is actually receiving the UC in-lieu payments, the Clean Storm Water Fund is currently in balance. 

Despite total annual revenues of about $16.5M and an unspent ongoing surplus of about $15M in the Sanitary Sewer Fund, the City is regularly subject to winter flooding in the flatlands and other areas (including cross contamination of water and sewage), contamination of Aquatic Park water by sewage inflows and Bay backflows, and is still (along with neighboring jurisdictions and EBMUD) in violation of an EPA “clean water” order. Work on our water/sewer system appears to be largely done on an “as-needed” basis. Residents should be asking how and on what the annual $16.5M is actually being spent, and why a large ongoing $15M surplus has been carried.  

Periodically and predictably, there is official talk of rate increases. Under Proposition 218, these rate increases would need to be formally justified by a “rate study” and, at least in theory, voted upon (the “protest vote” method used for the last refuse rate increase was widely seen as a sham). In the past six years, at least two rate studies were commissioned (Brown and Caldwell in 2005 and Harris & Associates in 2006) but no public results were forthcoming (to the best of my knowledge based on searches of City website and Google). Is it possible that the rate studies did not produce the desired result, i.e. justifying further rate increases? 

At this point, Berkeley Budget SOS wants to know: 

Why are there two separate funds devoted to the same or overlapping purposes? 

How are the annual $16.5 revenues being spent? How much of this has been devoted to infrastructure capital improvements (usually undertaken by outside contractors under a formal bidding process) and how much devoted to the compensation for Public Works employees who ordinarily do maintenance and repair? 

What happened to the $15M unspent surplus each year? Was it invested and the interest credited to the Sanitary Sewer Fund or was some amount diverted to other municipal uses? 

Why has essential storm drain and sewage infrastructure work been deferred when there has been a large surplus? 

What happened to the two commissioned rate studies? 

Why are sewer service fees apparently so high in Berkeley relative to our neighbors? Why are these fees based on water usage (which is not necessarily correlated with overall use of the system)? 

Why are some Berkeley residents being charged more than the legally-limited $34 annual amount for the Clean Storm Water Fee? Is a similar special tax levied in other jurisdictions? 

For the sake of fiscal clarity, accountability and sustainability, Berkeley Budget SOS will be seeking answers. To contact Berkeley Budget SOS write to