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City Budget Spares Fire Services, Crossing Guards

Friday May 07, 2004

The proposed fiscal year 2005 City of Berkeley budget presented to the City Council by City Manager Phil Kamlarz Tuesday night erases Berkeley’s $10 million general fund deficit without reducing—as some citizens had feared—fire services or eliminating school crossing guards. What it does to other city jobs is another question.  

The budget calls for the elimination of 78 full-time equivalent positions, 63 of which are already vacant or filled by temporary workers. By the city’s calculations, that would leave approximately seven career employees and 15 contract employees without work. 

Nearly $6 million of the city’s projected budget shortfall comes from spiraling employee retirement costs (see accompanying story), while a loss of tax revenue and state funding have also contributed to the $10 million gap. 

With a budding taxpayer revolt last year causing Mayor Tom Bates to withdraw a proposed budget-balancing parcel tax ballot measure, City Manager Kamlarz set out to close the shortfall primarily through a $6.7 million cut to city programs. The cuts include $5.1 million to departmental programs, $1.2 million in savings from employees, and $400,000 in contributions to Berkeley nonprofits. 

The closure of one of the city’s two fire truck companies was expected to be on the list of cuts. However, Kamlarz said the fire department was able to save $500,000 by eliminating two positions through retirement and assigning a lower paid civilian employee to a third position. The school crossing guards will be funded by an extra $300,000 allocated from the city’s reserve fund.  

The $115 million general fund budget—up $2.8 million from last year—restored partial funding to the Sustainable Development Program, Berkeley Community Media, the Berkeley Alliance and the Berkeley Boosters and the Berkeley Guides. 

Berkeley libraries remain slated for cuts this year and senior centers are still targeted for cuts during fiscal year 2006. 

To save $1.2 million in employee costs, Kamlarz is asking city workers to contribute three percent of the city’s contribution towards their pension funds this year. If they refuse, Kamlarz has threatened to close city hall one day a month to save an equivalent amount of money. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington doesn’t think job losses are on the horizon despite the elimination of positions.  

“They’re using the threat of layoffs to threaten employees to give up millions in benefits,” Worthington said. 

City staff handed councilmembers the budget immediately before at the 5 p.m. meeting, so few members had time to ask substantive questions and only Worthington called for specific alterations to the proposal, including a request to spare cuts to the nonprofits. The seven percent cut, he said, would devastate several groups and prevent the Quarter Meal Program from any hope of revival. Quarter Meal, which feeds the homeless, is scheduled to close in June from a lack of funds. 

The council will hold public hearings on the budget on May 18 and June 8 and present proposed amendments May 25. The council is scheduled to adopt a final budget on June 22. 

In addition to cuts, Kamlarz proposed raising $300,000 in new fees and spending $1.3 million from city reserves.  

Kamlarz expects to save $1.7 million from government restructuring, most of which has come from refinancing part of the city’s retirement obligations to police officers. The program will save the city $1.2 million this year, but could cost it more in future years depending on the performance of the State Retirement Fund. 

Part of the restructuring plan included placing the city’s Office of Economic Development under the city manager’s office and eventually folding the transportation department into public works. 

Kamlarz also said the city would provide financial bonuses for nonprofits that can achieve savings by consolidating their operations. 

In addition, the city manager’s proposed budget increased capital funding in the general fund by $600,000 and restored $75,000 for sidewalk repairs. 

The proposed budget doesn’t include four taxes the city council is considering taking to voters in November. They include: 

• A $1.2 million emergency medical services tax that would fund paramedic services at an annual cost to the average homeowner $30. 

• A $1 million tax clean water and storm drain tax that could include money for unearthing creeks at an annual cost to the average homeowner of $25. 

• A $1 million youth services tax that would restore cuts proposed in the general fund and also include money for the crossing guards. The tax would likely be levied on property transfers. 

• A $1.2 million library tax that would restore proposed service reductions in the general fund at an annual cost to the average homeowner of $30. 

Revenue from those tax measures wouldn’t reach the city treasury until the 2006 budget year. 

The city is also considering a hike in the Utility Users Tax, which could go into effect immediately after voter approval. The tax has received increased attention as a possible replacement to a proposed surcharge for 911 services that had been projected to raise $2.5 - $3 million dollars. Questions have since arose over the legality of the fee. 

After the budget overview, the council reconvened for its regular meeting. Asked by the Transportation Commission to include Dwight Way on a list of streets that would limit the allowable truck weights from five tons to three, the council did the commission one better. They implemented the three-ton limit for Dwight, Cedar Street and the Derby/Warring Corridor. 

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.