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Budget doesn’t allow for all wants and needs

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday March 13, 2001

If the City Council and its staff had its way, Berkeley would build all the affordable housing it needs, every house would be linked to the Internet, 126 new folks would join the city bureaucracy, funds would be available for more traffic police and there would be a place available for daily showers for the homeless. 

One of the principle jobs of the council each year is whittling down annual wish lists to fit funding realities. 

There’s little room in future budgets for the people and programs the City Council, department heads, and nonprofit service providers want to fund, cautioned Deputy City Manager Phil Kamlarz. More than 70 percent of Berkeley’s annual $300 million budget goes to fixed personnel costs; and most of the rest goes to fixed programmatic costs, such as sewers or street lighting.  

At last week’s budget workshop, the council approved 8-1 – Councilmember Betty Olds dissented – three expenditures, the last new spending allocations for this fiscal year’s budget.  

The Ecumenical Chaplaincy for the Homeless, which provides food, counseling and shelter to homeless youth among other services, will receive $25,000 to carry it to the end of this fiscal year. A $1,000 grant was awarded to Lamile Perry to send the high school wheelchair athlete to the junior wheelchair games in Australia. There was $5,000 that went to Easy Does It, the nonprofit that provides emergency services to the disabled. The funds will be spent on “assistive devices,” such as lifts to help move a disabled person in and out of bed. It is hoped that this equipment will help some disabled people retain regular attendants so that they use the emergency services less. 

On paper, there’s about $2 million available, Kamlarz said, but in reality that money will be needed over the next few years to prevent the city from going into the red. That’s because the city anticipates less revenue, especially from transfer taxes, as the economy slows down. 

Most of the focus of the budget workshop was on the next two years’ budget. The council engaged in a “brainstorming” session, whose aim is to eventually prioritize council goals. 

Among the funding priorities individual councilmembers tossed into the stew were: traffic enforcement, affordable housing, council chambers upgrades, strategies to get people out of their automobiles, including making bike routes safer; righting the housing-jobs imbalance, so that people who live in Berkeley work here as well; detoxification programs; creating a plan for citizens in case of disaster, including evacuation and shelter; developing solar power, a teen center, helping the high school’s Rebound! program, resolving the problem of the antenna at the new police station that the neighborhood wants removed; and Internet access to seniors. 

At one point, Councilmember Betty Olds was characteristically blunt in her questioning of the usefulness of the exercise. “I consider this silly,” she said. “I’m not going to add anything.” 

Kamlarz said city staff will refine the list and probably turn it back to the council for councilmembers to cast votes on their preferences in order to end up with a final list of council priorities. Councilmember Kriss Worthington objected to this method, saying it leaves the public out of the equation, but Councilmember Polly Armstrong said it was the most rational way to quantify what the council wants to do. 

The council did not delve into the two-year $32 million wish list created by department heads. Kamlarz said they probably won’t discuss these items until May, after the City Manager’s Office has discussed the items with department heads and refined it. It includes over 100 new positions the managers would like to create over the next two years. A few of those include: a building superintendent for city-owned buildings, a half-time public information officer to interface with the media, janitors to maintain civic center, three new traffic enforcement officers and two bicycle officers to patrol San Pablo Avenue. 

Programs managers have listed as funding priorities include: the project to blunt the city’s health disparities, job training programs, upgrading the city’s Internet connection, meal programs, professional training and increases in postage costs. 

The council will next discuss the budget at its March 20 meeting.