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Council Mulls Budget Cuts, Votes Schwarzenegger Suit

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday December 19, 2003

In rapid-fire, back-to-back actions Thursday afternoon, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he was restoring the lost Vehicle License Fund (VLF) fees to California’s cities and counties, and Berkeley City Council immediately authorized joining a lawsuit in order to make sure the governor keeps his promise. 

The two decisions pile an added level of uncertainty on top of Berkeley’s already-confused budget situation. 

On Tuesday night, Council approved some $4.9 million in mid-year budget cuts to make up for the anticipated loss of VLF payments from the state for the rest of the current fiscal year. Left up in the air, however, was how to implement a $250,000 hit to the city’s fire department. 

Under pressure from city firefighters—who picketed outside the meeting and packed the chambers inside—City Council voted down the only two fire department budget-cutting proposals on the table: one to temporarily take one of the city’s two ladder trucks out of service for short periods of time under limited conditions, the alternative to implement limited closings of the city’s seven fire stations on a rotating basis. 

But Council kept the $250,000 projected Fire Department cut in place, later directing City Manager Phil Kamlarz to work with department management and the firefighters union to come up with recommendations on how to make the budget adjustments. 

Fire Department representatives had described the ladder trucks as carrying, among other things, the department’s vehicle rescue apparatus (the so-called “jaws of life”) as well as its high-rise building rescue equipment. They told Council that even the temporary, intermittent removal from service of even one of the trucks would cause dangerous delays in service—up to 20 minutes if assistance by a truck from a neighboring city’s Fire Department had to be requested. 

With the governor’s announcement on the possible restoration of the VLF to Berkeley and other local governments, however, it’s unclear just how much of those $4.9 million in council-mandated cuts will now be actually implemented during the present fiscal year, which ends in July. 

Contacted late Thursday afternoon, Rama Murty of the city manager’s office said the projected cuts may go forward, regardless. Or may not. 

“It’s hard for [our office] to actually say what we would do or what we wouldn’t do until we know what’s going to happen in Sacramento,” Murty explained. 

Still, he added that “the idea of taking [Tuesday night’s] cuts was to deal with the shortfall in this year for the VLF, as well as to start trying to deal with the shortfall next year. But even if the VLF is restored in full, I think [the city manager’s office’s] interpretation is that we are still looking at a shortfall for fiscal year 2005.” 

He explained that fiscal year 2005 runs from July, 2004 through June, 2005. Murty stressed that he could not speak for the city manager, who was out of the office on Thursday. 

In a Thursday noon Sacramento press conference announcing the restoration of some $6.2 billion lost to local governments when he lowered the VLF, Gov. Schwarzenegger said “I was elected by the people of this state to lead; since the Legislative leadership refuses to act, I will act without them. I support local governments.” 

Berkeley City Council went into a previously-scheduled closed session about an hour and a half later to discuss Mayor Tom Bates’ call for the city to join a lawsuit against Schwarzenegger’s original lowering of the VLF payments to Berkeley and other local governments. At 4 p.m., mayoral aide Cisco DeVries issued a press release announcing city council’s unanimous authorization of the lawsuit. 

“I am encouraged [by the governor’s noon announcement] to provide this vital source of funding,” Mayor Bates said in the release. “However, several times [the governor] has promised to provide this money but then failed to do so. Until our funding is provided in full, we will continue to prepare legal action.” 

The release said that Berkeley was joining “more than a dozen cities and counties [which] have already officially authorized lawsuits.” 

While council’s vote on the VLF lawsuit was unanimous, its deliberations on the proposed fire department cuts were anything but. 

After hearing impassioned argument from both citizens and firefighters that even temporary, limited loss of one of the ladder trucks would put Berkeley residents at an unacceptable risk, a vote to implement the ladder truck cut lost on a 4-4 tie (Spring, Hawley, Shirek, and Bates voting yes, Maio, Olds, Worthington, and Wozniak voting no; 5 votes are needed to pass a Council measure). 

After Fire Chief Reginald Garcia told said he thought the ladder truck proposal was the least onerous of the two proposed cuts, Council then killed the rotating station proposal on a 4-3-1 vote (Olds, Worthington, and Wozniak voting no, Maio abstaining; Councilmember Margaret Breland was not present at Tuesday’s meeting due to illness). 

Firefighters cheered and applauded both decisions. 

But as one firefighter patted Chief Garcia on the back and congratulated him on “a good job,” a grim-faced Garcia cautioned him that “it’s not over yet; we’ve got a long ways to go.” 

Actually, it wasn’t long at all. Firefighters were still congregating in the hallway outside Council chambers celebrating their dual victories when Council voted 6-2 (Olds and Worthington voting no) to direct the city manager to come up with the $250,000 in cuts from the fire department budget. 

Council postponed until January action on a significant portion of the city manager’s proposals for the $69 million in as-yet-unspent funds carried over from last year’s budget, agreeing with Kamlarz’s recommendation to approve the allocation all unspent funds that were already committed by contracts, or were part of bonds or grants from other sources. That took care of only $40 million of the total, leaving $29 million unspent funds for Council to decide on when it reconvenes in January. At that time, Council must decide how much of that $29 million to keep in this year’s budget, and how much to save to help out with the budget crunch that is anticipated for the fiscal year beginning next July.