Sunday, July 27, 2008

Can City Governments Be a Source of Blight?

Two fundamental purposes of blight ordinances are to ensure that property owners are maintaining their properties in a manner that avoids or eliminates a public health and/or safety issue and to ensure that property values and the tax base are maintained. As such, blight ordinances adopted by local governments require property owners to meet certain fundamental standards set by the community. Interestingly, while local governments are the enforcers of blight ordinances, they themselves can be the source of blight in a community.

Take for example the maintenance of local roadways which is the responsibility of local governments paid for by your tax dollars including property taxes, income taxes and federal gas taxes. The portion of Shattuck Avenue in North Oakland/South Berkeley between Ashby Avenue and Alcatraz Avenue is major thoroughfare/arterial and gateway to downtown Berkeley. It is heavily traveled by those either coming to downtown Berkeley/UC Berkeley to shop, attend the University or for employment. It is also used by residents of Berkeley/Oakland to access Highway 24 and downtown Oakland. Yet, this section of roadway has severely deteriorated to the point where it represents a public safety problem and detracts from the community, creating an appearance of neglect and blight. This section of the road is filled with so many ruts and potholes, that it is a significant public safety concern for bicyclists and motorists. In fact, it presents a significant liability for the Cities of Oakland and Berkeley to maintain an unsafe roadway and it costs taxpayers in the form of additional maintenance on their motor vehicles/bicycles. Clearly, the failed pavement is a result of the heavy use of the roadway as well as the pavement cuts made by utility companies over time to repair underground utilities in the right of way.

This issue was recently brought to the attention of the Berkeley Public Works Director, Claudette Ford, and Berkeley City Councilman, Max Anderson, by the Chair of a Neighborhood Association.

Ms. Ford stated in an email reply to the Chair, "The Public Works Department has received your email over the past few weeks [and] has been investigating what could be done to address your request. We are in total agreement that the section of Shattuck that you refer in your email is in bad shape, but given the other pressing needs it was not on our scheduled repair list at this time...we feel fairly confident that we will be able to do something to improve the overall condition of the street. As we get closer to the actual work date, you and others on the street will be getting notification from the city/contractor".

Apparently, Councilman Anderson also noted to the Chair at a Neighborhood Watch Meeting that the Public Works Department found the funding to repave the Berkeley portion of Shattuck from Ashby to the Oakland border. Councilman Anderson was instrumental in working with the City Manager and the Public Works Director to find a solution. Concerned residents are still working with Oakland City Councilwoman, Jane Brunner, and the Oakland City staff on repairs to the Oakland portion of Shattuck.

While we are happy to see that the City of Berkeley has plans to repair the failed pavement, it begs the question: do local governments have a fundamental responsibility to maintain their property? We think so. Both the City of Oakland and Berkeley get an F when it comes to maintaining its infrastructure, particularly local roads, and they are on our blight watch list. Rather than having to wait until members of the community complain, local governments should be pro-actively assessing their properties and infrastructure and budgeting appropriately for their repair and maintenance. This is what is expected of private property owners. Why shouldn't local governments be required to meet the same standards? Budget priorities are the responsibility of our locally elected officials.

We will keep you updated on the repair work...

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