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Budget Woes TopCouncil’s Agenda

Tuesday December 16, 2003

Berkeley citizens tired of hearing about the city’s ongoing budget problems will certainly want to skip tonight’s (Tuesday, Dec. 16) City Council meeting, which features two sessions on the subject. 

The 5 p.m. work session includes discussions of City Manager Kamlarz’ proposed Budget Crisis Recovery Strategy, his recommendations for dispersal of some $69 million in carryover funds from the last fiscal year. Council action on both items are scheduled to be taken at the 7 p.m. regular session. 

Kamlarz has proposed a nine-point program to cut $4.9 million in funds that will be lost to Berkeley in the next fiscal year due to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rescinding of the Vehicle License Fee (VLF). 

Along with giving a timeline for preparing final cuts for the Fiscal Year 2004-05 budget, the city manager has recommended a “hard hiring freeze” (the quotations are Kamlarz’), a moratorium on all new expenditures, “aggressively” pursuing cost recovery from nonprofit landowners, and recovering the infamous “escaped” property taxes and fees. 

The most controversial part of Kamlarz’ budget-cutting plan may be in the area of what he calls “labor saving programs.” Mayor Tom Bates has already publicly indicated that such programs may include closing city fire stations on a rotating basis. 

Berkeley firefighters reacted immediately, announcing plans for an informational picket and protest rally against the proposed cuts at tonight’s Council meeting. 

Over the weekend, members of Berkeley Firefighters Association Local 1227—the union credited with striking the death blow to the mayor’s proposed parcel tax—also stood on city streetcorners passing out slick, two-color handouts featuring a picture of a firefighter holding a presumably rescued infant and proclaiming “The City wants to close your fire station. They call it ‘brownouts.’ We call it response time roulette.” 

The firefighters local also issued a press statement opposing the proposed rotating closures, stating that “station closures of any type will increase response time and make our citizens less safe” and calling on Council to “cut the fat, not the fire department.” 

Kamlarz has recommended that City Council hold back $2.8 million of the approximately $43 million in funds from this year’s budget that were not tied up in contracts and are not yet spent. His proposal will almost certainly come under attack from both ends of the spectrum: those who want the city to hold back more, and those who want to preserve items already budgeted. 

Under pressure of the budget crunch, several councilmembers are expected to ask Kamlarz to increase the projected $2.8 million holdback. At the same time, some councilmembers will oppose some of the cuts already proposed. Opposition to Kamlarz’ recommendations is expected to center around the city’s disabled community. 

In an op-ed article published today in the Daily Planet (see Page Seven), Councilmember Dona Spring calls for restoration of budgeted funds for the city’s warm water pool and sidewalk curb cuts, two projects earmarked for disabled citizens that Kamlarz wants to postpone. 

“No other community group is being targeted with cuts of this magnitude,” Spring writes. “These cuts will not solve the structural budget deficit problems connected to employee cost-of-living increases and retirement benefits.” 

In other action tonight, council will hold a public hearing on implementing an automated, photo traffic light enforcement system in Berkeley. If approved, the proposal would authorize a contract with an outside agency to place cameras at several city intersections to catch drivers running red lights. The cost of the contract is expected to be more than made up by the extra revenue generated from fines. A controversial portion of the proposed contract sets aside 10% of the fine for each ticket to the private company operating the cameras. 

Council will also take its first look at the report of the Mayor’s Permit Task Force, though no more than that. Implementation of the task force’s recommendations is not expected to be discussed until sometime next year.