Amidst a growing uneasy restlessness throughout the city over Berkeley City Council’s proposed March money-raising ballot measure, an almost eerie quiet settled over the issue at this week’s Council meeting. Only a handful of citizens showed up to take advantage of what Mayor Tom Bates defined as “Your chance to weigh in on the issue.”
Meanwhile Council itself tweaked and tinkered with details of the parcel tax measure, trying to find just the right fit to both balance the city’s imminent budget deficit and get past two-thirds of the city’s voters in the spring.
Mired like most California cities in an escalating series of rolling budget crises, Berkeley is looking at a $9.5 million deficit in fiscal year 2005 that could balloon to $19.5 million in five years. And that doesn’t take into account incoming Gov. Schwarzenegger’s promised repeal of the state Vehicle License Fee and other potential state hits to city income, the net effects of which could be huge.
Council has until Nov. 25 to give final approval to the language of the parcel tax ballot measure in order for it to appear on the March, 2004 ballot. A two-thirds voter approval is needed to pass the measure.
On Tuesday night, with an eye towards citizen concerns that it be as serious about making budget cuts as it is about asking for a raise in taxes, Council essentially asked city Budget Manager Paul Navazio and Acting City Manager Phil Kamlarz to divide the current projected five-year deficit in half, with the proposed parcel tax written to take care of one half of the shortfall and Council committing to cut the budget to make up the other half.
Council also tentatively approved a proposal by Councilmember Kriss Worthington to insert a similar trigger mechanism for any possible state impacts on Berkeley’s budget: For any loss of currently budgeted state money up to approximately $5 million a year, the parcel tax will be automatically increased to cover one-half, and Council will make up the rest in cuts.
Responding to a complaint coming first from Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, then from other councilmembers, that the parcel tax measure might have been better received if a public hearing had been held, Council set a hearing on the matter for its Nov. 18 meeting.
Council also agreed to Mayor Tom Bates’ request to hold a closed door session on Nov. 18 to discuss strategies for a renegotiation of the city’s labor contracts. Such a renegotiation may be necessary in order for the city to make the projected budget cuts. At Councilmember Worthington’s insistence, Council also set aside time as well on the Nov. 18 for a briefing before the public on labor contracts.
During the meeting, Mayor Bates praised “the liberals and progressives” of Berkeley City Council for keeping the city in good fiscal shape in bad economic times, noting the city’s continuing excellent bond rating.
After the meeting, both Worthington and Wozniak said that Council had not done a good enough job in making a case to the Berkeley public that City Council had already been tightening the city’s budget belt in anticipation of the current fiscal crisis.
They said that Council has made a total of $6 million in budget cuts over the past two fiscal years. Wozniak said that after taking an e-mail survey of his constituents, he found “about a 50-50 split for an against the measure.”
Wozniak said that given the fact that his council district has a larger percentage of homeowners than many other parts of Berkeley, the results were consistent with the findings of a recent poll undertaken at the request of the Mayor’s Revenue Task Force.
Wozniak said he believed his constituents were taking the issue “thoughtfully and seriously,” and noted that a number of people opposed to the parcel tax “came up with some good suggestions for budget cuts that we had not thought of.”
Mayoral aide Cisco DeVries said a day after the meeting that he believed a large number of citizens “may be waiting to be convinced about the parcel tax. If people had already made up their minds, they might have come out in larger numbers to the Council meeting to voice their opinion. I think that people are waiting to hear the arguments as we get closer to the actual vote. They’re listening.”
DeVries also fended off criticism that the mayor and Council might have erred in not starting the process earlier to try to convince people for the need of a parcel tax increase, or might have waited to put the measure on the November ballot.
“I came in here with Mayor Bates (when he was first elected a year ago) and that’s pretty much what we’ve been dealing with, the budget crisis,” DeVries said. “I think what’s happening is that because of an accumulation of events, [the budget crisis] is just now becoming a reality to the citizens. They’re just beginning to engage in it. I’m not certain that this could have happened any sooner. And if we had waited to put the measure on the ballot in November, Council wouldn’t be holding these discussions on it now—there wouldn’t be this sense of urgency.”
DeVries also said that putting the parcel tax measure off until November would be fiscally irresponsible. “In the event that the measure didn’t pass at that time,” he explained, “we’d have to start making cuts midway into the fiscal year. That would make everything much more difficult.”
At its Tuesday meeting Council also tinkered with the language of proposed ballot measures that would alter the way elections are conducted in Berkeley, including lowering the percentage a Berkeley candidate needs to win an election outright without triggering a runoff, lengthening the time between the initial election and a runoff, altering the number of signatures needed to land a slot on the ballot and add a filing fee to requirements for candidates who want a slot on city election ballots.
In addition, Council is considering adding a ballot measure that would authorize Council to consider adopting Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) at such time as it becomes available in Alameda County.
IRV can’t be implemented without changes in the city charter, the county and state election codes, and in the software installed in the county’s new touchscreen computerized voting machines, according to City Clerk Sherry Kelly. The process would take a minimum of two to three election cycles, she estimates,
Language for all of these proposed March ballot measures must also be finalized by Council’s Nov. 25 meeting.