In his first state of the city address, Mayor Tom Bates touted a congenial City Council, praised new development and warned of a looming budget deficit. He also promised to enhance the city’s business environment and to improve educational services for the city’s youth.
Marking his 150th day in office, Bates spoke to about 200 people in the auditorium at Longfellow Middle School on Tuesday. City Councilmembers Miriam Hawley, Dona Spring and Kriss Worthington attended the address as well as a dozen city commissioners and several Board of Education directors.
The mayor’s speech lasted nearly an hour and, typical of his style, he spoke rapidly without benefit of prepared text. His comments frequently were applauded by the audience, which was largely comprised of supporters.
Bates spoke mostly about the city’s future. He opened his address, however, by describing one change that has already taken hold: the improved working relationship among City Councilmembers.
Bates credited the new spirit of congeniality, in part, to the newly instituted Agenda Committee, formerly the Rules Committee. He said the committee has improved the content of agenda items by making sure they are complete before council considers them.
The council previously was known for contentious meetings characterized by late-night discussions punctuated with effronteries and backbiting.
“There have been some really radical things happening in Berkeley,” he said. “We’ve had [City Council] meetings over at 9:30 p.m. I get home and my wife asks me, ‘What are you doing here?’”
Bates then addressed the city’s future with a mixture of enthusiasm and caution.
The state budget deficit is the most critical issue facing the city, Bates said.
“The state of California is far and away in the worst shape of any state in the union,” Bates said. He then chastised state Assembly Republicans for refusing to raise taxes to cope with a $36 billion deficit. “The situation in Sacramento is a log jam with Republicans holding teachers, schoolchildren and poor people hostage.”
He said the impact on Berkeley will be a $4 million deficit in fiscal year 2004-2005 followed by an $11 million deficit the following year.
“We can handle the first year raising fees and fines,” he said. “We can raise parking tickets from $23 to $30 and our fines will still be comparable to other Bay Area cities.”
The city manager instituted a hiring freeze several months ago, which also will help to offset next year’s deficit.
However, Bates said the following year will be more difficult to contend with and that a ballot measure to raise taxes might be necessary as well as deep cuts to programs and city staff.
“We will have to be resourceful and we will have to make the most with less,” he said.
Berkeley needs to do more to welcome businesses, Bates said. He said the city will have to counter slouching sales taxes by streamlining the business permit process to attract new businesses.
Sales tax, which accounts for about 13 percent of the city’s general fund, is down by about 6 percent or $1.2 million, Bates said.
“We have to recognize that we need people coming to Berkeley to purchase things,” he said. “I will do everything possible to help business come here and thrive.”
As an example of a business impediment, he described former state Assemblywoman Dion Aroner’s difficulties getting her consulting business started. “She can’t get a permit because the fire inspectors are too busy,” he said.
Bates said he has formed a task force and expects to hold a public hearing on permitting changes within the next three to four months.
Bates said he wants to see more housing developed in Berkeley, especially affordable housing. To that end, the Mayor’s Task Force on Permitting and Development was formed to consider ways to speed the development process without restricting public input. The task force is expected to offer recommendations in the next several months.
“I want to see commercial and mixed use on arterioles that are well designed and opened not just to students but to the entire community so we can actually have poor people living here,” he said.
Bates described a pending development boom which includes 2,000 residential units either under construction or approved in a two-mile radius of downtown.
Bates also said it was time to assess the strain UC Berkeley puts on the city’s infrastructure and services. UC Berkeley is one of the largest property owners in town but, because of its state-owned status, does not pay property tax to the city of Berkeley.
In addition, Bates said the university is working on plans to develop 2 million square feet of new housing, research space, administrative offices and parking facilities within the next 10 years and should pay something to the city for sewers, utilities and police and fire service.
“If they’re going to develop, they have to help us,” he said.
Bates proposed a “shared study” with UC Berkeley to determine infrastructure costs.
Bates spoke briefly of his 24-hour homeless stint last week. He said Berkeley has a variety of homeless services that show the city is a “wonderful, loving and outreaching community.”
He also described the problem of homelessness as intractable and called on a regional approach to providing homeless services.
“The city of Berkeley spent $3 million on homeless programs and the entire county of Contra Costa spent only $2 million,” he said. “This is simply not fair. Perhaps we can cut out Contra Costa’s highway funding and divert it to cities who want to do something on a regional basis.”
Bates campaigned on the promise of improving Berkeley’s schools. In his first months in office he forged new alliances with the Berkeley Unified School District in the hopes of improving school safety and educational services, he said.
He organized a Youth and Education Summit, a series of meetings which began in late March. They include members of the Berkeley School Board, the Berkeley Public Education Foundation and the Berkeley Community Fund. The collaboration is exploring ways to maintain and improve school services in the face of a budget deficit of between $4 million and $8 million in the coming year.
“Our school kids have to have an opportunity to learn, and I want to do everything I can to improve their lives,” he said. “Stay tuned to this because we’re off to a wonderful start.”