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Council To Hear Budget Deficit Reduction Plan

Tuesday May 04, 2004

The City Council will get its first look tonight (Tuesday, May 4) at a finalized budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year that is sure to leave many in Berkeley feeling shortchanged. 

At a 5 p.m. non-voting work session, City Manager Phil Kamlarz plans to unveil the plan to close a $10 million deficit in the city’s $113 million general fund by a combination of raising fees, using the city’s rainy day reserves, trimming employee costs, and cutting funding to city departments and community groups by roughly ten percent. 

The plan was not available at press time, but councilmembers believed it would be nearly identical to a strategy presented by Kamlarz at a March council meeting, where over two dozen firefighters and about 60 seniors came out to oppose the proposed service cuts that directly affected them. 

Four public meetings have been scheduled for May to discuss the city budget, giving the council plenty of time to tinker with the plan until a scheduled vote on June 22. The council won’t consider the budget proposal during its regularly scheduled 7 p.m. meeting tonight. 

Berkeley’s current budget shortfall is due in large part to a drop in state aid and the spiraling costs of employee benefits. That combination forced the city to cut $6 million to balance last year’s budget and is expected to result in an additional projected $4.6 million deficit in 2006 that will also need to be balanced. 

“These cuts are hitting the bone,” said Councilmember Miriam Hawley, who warned that a proposal in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget could deprive the city of an additional $1.6 million in property taxes in 2006. 

To get a handle on the city’s structural budget woes in a political climate not hospitable to big tax increases, City Manager Kamlarz last month proposed $9.2 in budget cuts over the next two years. 

Among some of the services on the table include: 

• Closing public libraries on Sundays and some evenings and reducing the library budget for new books and CDs, for a savings of $1.2 million next year. 

• Reducing programs and consolidating services at Berkeley’s senior centers, for a savings of 327,000 over two years. 

• Shutting down one of the city’s two fire truck companies ten hours a day, saving the city $500,000. 

• Eliminating 13 vacant police officer positions for a savings of nearly $2 million, as well as eliminating 25 part-time school crossing guards for an additional savings of $328,000. 

Some of the services could be salvaged by four proposed tax hikes totaling $4.2 million that the council is considering taking to voters in November. Nevertheless, according to the most recent figures provided by the city manager’s office, next year’s proposed budget will likely eliminate 81 positions, 69 of which are already vacant. 

Before any city employee is laid off or a service is cut, Councilmember Kriss Worthington wants the city to factor into its calculations the estimated $3 million it stands to gain from the sale of its health building on Sixth Street and two plots on McKinley Street near the public safety building. So far, city staff has kept anticipated revenues from the sales off the books. 

Worthington said he would fight hardest to preserve funding to senior centers. Councilmember Dona Spring said she opposed the roughly 20 percent cut slated to hit Berkeley Community Media. 

Hawley identified school crossing guards as a top priority to save from cuts. Money for crossing guards would be included as part of a proposed $1 million ballot measure to preserve youth services. 

While the council considers what programs to cut, city staff continues to haggle with unions over employee givebacks. The city is pushing the unions to contribute three percent of the city’s required contribution to their pension plans this year. If the union doesn’t agree to the concession that would add an estimated $3 million to the city’s coffers, City Manager Phil Kamlarz has threatened to close city hall once a month to reduce expenses. 

At tonight’s regular 7 p.m. meeting, the council will consider a plan to keep big delivery trucks off residential streets. The proposal from Assistant City Manager for Transportation Peter Hillier would decrease allowable truck weights on many city streets from five tons to three tons.  

Sports Utility Vehicles and pick-up trucks weigh in at under three tons, but many smaller trucks and larger vans would be forced onto major arteries under the plan. Although Berkeley police don’t assign officers to enforce the rule, supporters of the change say that by imposing stricter weight limits, police will better be able to identify which trucks are in clear violation of the rule. 

Some residential streets identified as truck routes, including Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Gilman Street, and Cedar Street would retain a five ton limit. 

The Transportation Commission supports the proposal, but wants to extend it to Dwight Way between San Pablo and Sacramento Street, which the city has argued is too vital a transportation corridor to limit truck access. 

Fran Haselsteiner, a Dwight Way resident and member of the Transportation Commission, said her 36-foot block is too narrow to handle the heavy flow of busses, cars and trucks it faces. “The problem is there’s just too much traffic so narrow streets are facing more vehicles than they were meant to handle,” she said.