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WHEN BERKELEY VOTERS approved a special property tax in 2020 to bolster firefighting efforts with $8.5 million a year in new revenue, the City Council and the Disaster and Safety Fire Commission were tasked with overseeing the money.

Now, more than a year later, both agencies say the Fire Department is spending its new funds, sometimes without seeking approval or, in many cases, even communicating its plans to them. 

“I am struggling to understand how the budget is being spent,” said Nancy Rader, member of the Disaster and Safety Fire Commission, whose nine members are appointed by Berkeley City Council members and the mayor.

In November 2020, Berkeley voters approved Measure FF, a property tax to fund firefighters, wildfire prevention and emergency medical response and expected to generate $8.5 million annually. The measure gave the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission the task of overseeing the funds, but commission members say they have not been able to get their job done.

“We are doing our best to provide them with as much information as possible. Obviously they have a lot of questions.”

Keith May, Berkeley Fire Department assistant chief

“The commission continues to ask for transparency and clarity,” said commission Chair Jose Luis Bedolla.

As of mid December, neither the commission nor the City Council, which must ultimately approve all disbursements under Measure FF, has seen a detailed plan for how the Fire Department will spend the money. 

“I understand their frustration,” said Keith May, assistant chief of the Berkeley Fire Department, who also serves as the secretary to the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission, a dual role that makes him responsible for coordination between the two organizations. 

May, himself, was unable to clarify how much the department has spent to date.

Measure FF money has been spent in re-hiring nine retired firefighters. They began conducting vegetation management inspections in September, but the Fire Department didn’t tell the commission about having hired them until three months later on Dec. 1, in response to inquiries for this story. It was only then that the Fire Department appeared to show concern about being more transparent with its plans.

“We are doing our best to provide them with as much information as possible. Obviously they have a lot of questions,” said May.

In the line of fires

All this comes at a critical time for fire departments in Berkeley and across California as they struggle to combat the spread of wildfires. The state recorded its largest wildfire season ever in 2020 when more than four percent of California’s acreage burned. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a record investment of over $2 billion in disaster preparedness ahead of the 2021 fire season. 

Citing a critical need to upgrade and modernize disaster preparedness and response, Measure FF backers laid out a wide range of plans for the money, including new ambulances, communications systems, fire prevention measures and other equipment.

“With climate change, fires are burning with greater intensity, blowing embers … far from front lines,” the backers wrote. “Earthquakes remain a danger. Berkeley must be prepared to manage these multiple emergencies simultaneously.”

With the bond measure generating millions of dollars in new funding for an indefinite period, determining how and when the money gets spent becomes an essential task.

Yet, for the entire first year under Measure FF,  the only information that the Berkeley Fire Department shared was a PowerPoint presentation. That provided a rough vision of how the money would be distributed, but few specifics. 

Plants and trees grow outside a home in the Berkeley Hills. Measure FF backers say climate change increases the risk of more intense wildfires whose embers can spread, causing catastrophic damage to homes and businesses. (Photo by Harika Maddala/Bay City News)

It wasn’t until the Oct. 27 meeting that the commission was given information that went further than those slides. At that time, in response to what had become monthly inquiries from Rader, the Fire Department confirmed that it was planning to hire an outside contractor as program manager for Measure FF.

That disclosure touched off new controversy.

Commission member Rader, representing District 6, wrote in an email to Chief May: “I have a difficult time seeing how an outside consultant is likely to be as effective as in-house staff,  particularly one at management level. How does a consultant have any authority or  accountability?” The Fire Department’s response was that the contractor will report to its staff.

The apparent communications breakdown has been exacerbated by a gap in understanding exactly what obligations the Fire Department has. Some within the department express doubt whether the commission has the right to have the budget at all.

“The commission doesn’t currently have nor do I think that commissions normally get a detailed line budget,” said David Sprague, the Fire Department’s interim deputy chief. 

But the law suggests otherwise. According to the Berkeley Municipal Code, the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission “shall function as the citizens’ oversight committee for expenditure of the proceeds of this tax” and “for this purpose, in addition to its other powers, the commission may request detailed expenditure plans for tax proceeds annually, which shall be provided to it as early in the budget process as feasible.”

Who’s minding the budget?

May didn’t dispute that the commission is entitled to see the budget but said it must go first to the City Council. That has not happened, however, and there is no timeline for it to happen. The City Council has approved only a portion of the budget for one specific program, but has never seen overall numbers beyond the rough budget on the PowerPoint.

Along with hiring back the retired firefighters, the department did seek — and received — City Council approval on Sept. 28 to purchase an Outdoor Public Warning System for $2 million from Genasys, a San Diego-based emergency management company. A set of 15 sirens to alert residents if an evacuation is needed is to be put in place over the next three years.

But the commission was never consulted about the purchase, making it impossible to exercise its mandated oversight role. And it continues to request in vain a detailed budget from the Fire Department.

“All those will become laid out at some point,” May said. “We are asking for their patience.”

The uncertainties created by the absence of a spending plan are perhaps epitomized by another issue — plans to construct a $40 million new building to house Fire Department training and administration.

A fire danger status sign at the entrance of Tilden Park displays a moderate threat level on Jan. 11. While Berkeley survived this past fire season without any major blazes, it did so for half a year without a permanent fire chief; Abraham Roman, who filled the role on an interim basis, was confirmed as fire chief this fall. (Photo by Harika Maddala/Bay City News)

“We currently have a training facility that is woefully inadequate,” said Sprague, the interim deputy chief. 

The Fire Department says it plans to use an extra $4.4 million it will receive in the first year alone of Measure FF on the building. That money would be used to purchase a piece of land, and the department says it then plans to find other, yet-unspecified funding to actually construct the building. It seems likely the department would need financing well beyond its annual city budget for that money, but going into greater debt would appear to contradict one reason given for Measure FF — to pay off $700,000 in debt the department had accumulated over the last decade.

“I don’t know anything about that [a new facility building.] I don’t think it’s top of their [Fire Department’s] list. It’s there, it’s in the Measure, but I haven’t heard anything about them pursuing it,” said Berkeley City Council member Susan Wengraf, who represents voters in the Berkeley Hills. As a member of the City Council, she is required to vote on any Measure FF budget expenditures.

Finally, the task of overseeing Measure FF expenditures may have been made more difficult by changes within the Fire Department command structure. 

The fire season went by without an actual fire chief; former Chief Dave Brannigan stepped down in April and Abraham Roman was interim to the position for half a year until he was confirmed as fire chief this fall.

Wengraf, for one, thinks the situation surrounding Measure FF may improve with the new management.

“They have a lot on their plate and I think they just need a little bit more time to figure this out,” said Wengraf.