The City Council took a preliminary look Tuesday night at the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
There was not a lot to look at.
Most the city’s expenses were set in stone last year, when a two-year almost $500 million budget was approved.
For the next fiscal year there’s only about $3 million that has not been allocated. The city manager and council will divvy it up.
Much of Tuesday night’s meeting was set aside for City Manager Jim Keene and his staff to present their priorities, in the context of the budget. That included about $2 million for projects the manager sees as vital to the city.
If councilmembers accept the manager’s priorities, that would leave about $1 million for them to spend on their priority projects.
At Tuesday’s meeting, some 40 people representing various community organizations pled their causes, asking for funding from the council. Other requests have been presented and still more are trickling in to the mayor and council offices. The needs described include improvements at the animal shelter, funds for developing programming at the local cable television station, funds for a variety of work with homeless adults and youth, money for bicycle and pedestrian safety, after school tutoring, youth jobs, arts projects – and the list goes on.
If all the requests submitted to the council to date were honored, they would add up to about $12.5 million.
The manager’s priorities include sidewalk repair, building maintenance, extra time to write and review the city’s General Plan, new staff for the city clerk’s office, telephone upgrades, a loan to the Freight & Salvage, fee waivers, a pension fund audit, increased police costs to transport prisoners to Oakland, due to the reduction of services in the Berkeley courts, and federally mandated disaster insurance. The total comes to about $2 million.
At either next week’s council meeting or the one following it, the mayor and the vice mayor will each present recommendations for funding.
Mayor Shirley Dean said she hopes to have her list ready by June 13, but a trip to a mayor’s conference – she’ll be in Berkeley just in time for the evening meeting – may cause her to delay her presentation until June 20.
The range of needs is great and the task of deciding funding is not an easy one, the mayor said.
Dean hopes, in part, to evaluate the requests by favoring projects already under way but only partially funded.
“We can’t just start things and abandon them before they are done,” Dean said.
For example, there were to be poems embedded in the sidewalk of the new Addison Street arts district. Bond funds were supposed to be set aside for that purpose, but the funding came up short, so the project is incomplete, Dean said.
The Interstate 80 wheelchair/bike/pedestrian overpass is another example of a partially funded project. It lacks lighting, stairs and other amenities in the original plans.
“We need to be really cautious,” Dean said.
She characterized the process by which requests are considered by the council as “insane.”
Councilmembers or organizations seeking funds for projects first go through a process of having the council vote to refer the project to the budget process. Then there is a final council vote on the budget.
“There are so many good causes. The (dual) process raises expectations,” Dean said. People believe once their request has been “referred,” that the funds are theirs.
Some projects have not even made the list, Dean added.
“How are we going to move the antenna tower?” she asked, referring to the 170-foot communications tower next to the new Public Safety Building, which neighbors are fighting.
The vice mayor plans to put forward competing recommendations. Several of the five members of the liberal/progressive council faction will help write the document, said Councilmember Linda Maio, who will take the lead on the budget work.
No more than four councilmembers participate in the process, due to limitations imposed by the state’s open meeting law.
Figuring out which of the requests to honor will be difficult, Maio said. “It’s the hardest thing that happens” on the council.
Low-income housing will be one of the priorities, she said.
Maio said that she hopes the council will look at the big picture.
For example, arts funding is a priority, but it is buried in the nicks and crannies of the budget, rather than in one clear section called “arts projects.”
For example, the city is funding the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, improvements to the arts district, after-school arts funding, and more, she said.
Sometimes the mayor or the liberal/progressive coalition will take funding away from the manager’s recommendations.
But Maio did not appear eager to do so.
“I want to be sure staff has enough to do their brick and mortar things,” she said.