Berkeley’s proposed parcel tax plan died Monday night, almost exactly 24 hours before City Council was scheduled to approve final language to place the measure on the March, 2004 ballot.
The decision came shortly after the union representing city’s firefighters—depicted as primary beneficiaries of the controversial measure—declared against the tax.
Mayor Tom Bates officially killed the $7 million tax around 6 p.m., when he publicly announced that he was requesting that City Council withdraw his proposal.
“Over the past several weeks,” Bates wrote, “I heard from members of the public, neighborhood groups, unions, and others that the tax measure does not enjoy the support necessary to achieve a two-thirds majority in the March election.”
It was a severe political defeat for Bates, who had counted on the tax as the centerpiece of his plan to offset a major portion of the city’s looming and rising budget deficit. The decision leaves Council only layoffs and other severe budget-cutting measures to close the gap, which is set at $8 million to $10 million next year and is scheduled to rise as high as $20 million in five years.
And that is without factoring in the local impact of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reduction in the state’s Vehicle License Fees.
The mayor is already floating one cost-cutting proposal before the city’s labor unions: closing City Hall for a week between Christmas and New Years.
Five Berkeley neighborhood associations as well as a coalition of neighborhood groups—the Berkeley Alliance of Neighborhood Associations—had already announced their opposition to the proposed parcel tax by last Tuesday’s City Council public hearing on the measure.
But while it was Bates who pulled the plug on the parcel tax, it was the city’s firefighters who dealt the death blow an hour earlier when the executive committee of the 120-member Berkeley Fire Fighters Local 1227 declared its opposition. Given that the parcel measure was officially titled the “Special Tax To Fund Fire Prevention And Protection Services,” and was structured specifically to “maintain [current] staffing levels at Berkeley fire stations,” opposition by the firefighters was a political embarrassment that supporters of the tax could not hope to overcome.
In a telephone interview Monday evening, Bates said the firefighters’ opposition was “particularly troublesome. ... Since the money was going for the fire service, and they’re not in favor of it, there’s no way this can pass. To pass a two-thirds tax, if you have organized opposition, it’s exceedingly difficult. And if you don’t have some sort of unity in your ability to pass the measure, in terms of a campaign and cohesiveness, it renders it dead on arrival.”
Bates and the council got the bad news in a blunt e-mail from Fire Fighters president Marc Mestrovich, who wrote that “the executive board feels that the City of Berkeley is using the reputation of the firefighters to get a tax measure passed with language that we feel is not fully truthful to the citizens of Berkeley.”
Mestrovich explained in a telephone interview that the local’s executive committee acted because, according to information reported at last Tuesday’s Council meeting, only $2 million of the proposed $7 million tax increase would actually go to fire services. “The wording of the measure just wasn’t correct,” Mestrovich said. He said his local favored working with city staff and other unions to “develop a [tax] measure that will best suit the needs of all involved” and put it on the November, 2004 ballot. “That would give us time to make sure things are right and correct.”
Shortly before Bates called for the withdrawal of the measure, Councilmember Kriss Worthington told the Daily Planet that the firefighters’ decision sounded the death knell to the parcel tax. “A fire tax that’s not supported by the firefighters has zero chances of getting two-thirds of the vote,” Worthington said. Parcel tax votes require a two-thirds majority.
In his e-mail to Bates and City Council, Mestrovich said that his organization had heard of recent polls circulating around Berkeley that had the parcel tax losing by an astoundingly wide margin, 35 percent to 65 percent, and said that his own poll of firefighters local members living in the city showed the tax losing 6 to 1.
And Mestrovich later said that the failure of either the mayor’s office or the Revenue Task Force to even inform firefighters that their unit would be the subject of the proposed tax—much less ask their opinion—was one reason the firefighters local rejected the tax.
“I had information that there was going to be a fire tax coming around, probably about three to four weeks ago,” Mestrovich said. “Did I personally receive a phone call? No.”
For his part, Mayor Bates was blunt about life in Berkeley without the projected parcel tax revenue. “We’re going to have some difficult belt-tightening,” he said. “It’s going to be hard. There are going to be services that are going to be cut. There are going to be things that we are going to have to do without.”
Among the cost-cutting measures likely to be put in place, he said, was closing fire stations on a rotating basis and “more than likely” laying off police officers. “It’s not going to be pretty,” he added. “But I’m sure we can get through it. We’ll try to preserve the services that we really think are important, and we’ll try to keep right on trucking.”
As for what did the parcel tax in, the mayor did not take any of the blame himself, stating simply that, “My sense of it is that it wasn’t right for us to do. The elements just didn’t come together,” adding that, “[the Daily Planet] and all those articles didn’t help us, either. That was devastating.” Asked to elaborate on what articles he meant, Bates said, “It wasn’t the articles. It was a lot of those editorials. And letters to the editor. They were pretty misleading.”
Asked if he would consider the firefighters’ proposal to rework the parcel tax for the November, 2004 ballot, Bates sounded like a man just having stepped out of the ring from a professional heavyweight fight, and not especially anxious to get back in again just yet. “We’ll just have to see,” he said.