‘Oversight’ Bumps Union Resolution From City Council Agenda

Tuesday May 25, 2004

The biggest news swirling around tonight’s (Tuesday, May 25) City Council meeting isn’t on the agenda.  

A controversial recommendation from the Citizen’s Budget Review Commission requesting the council take a tough stand on city unions was kept off the council agenda after the city attorney’s office determined the commission had not properly listed the item on its meeting agenda. 

As far as what’s on the council agenda for Tuesday, five proposed ballot measure items take center stage. 

The Budget Review Commission resolution that didn’t make the agenda had requested that the council, in future union negotiations, make employees pay for contributions to their pension plans and called on unions to re-open collective bargaining on their contracts before the November elections when a series of new taxes are expected to be on the ballot. 

However the agenda for the meeting only mentioned a “budget update” and made no mention of the resolution, passed 5-1 by the commission. 

Placing the recommendation on the council agenda would violate a state law, known as the Brown Act, said Deputy City Attorney Zach Cowan. The law requires that legislative bodies give “reasonable notice” when considering an action. To reach the council, the commission will have to vote on the resolution again at its Wednesday meeting. An agenda for the meeting has not been made public as of press time. 

Budget Commissioner Leonard Schwab, the author of the resolution, said the commission secretary and City Budget Director Tracy Vesely failed to put the item on the May 5 agenda even though he e-mailed it to her on April 23. 

Schwab said he is assuming that its absence was an “innocent oversight,” but Barbara Gilbert who serves on the Berkeley Budget Oversight Committee—an unrelated group—thinks politics were involved. 

Gilbert fears that the delay is a ploy to sidestep the controversial issue of costly long term union contracts she said accounted for about 75 percent of city expenses. With the city in negotiations with unions on possible givebacks and the council considering a variety of tax measures to plug the city’s $10 million budget deficit, Gilbert said the recommendation was an urgent matter. She fears that at the Wednesday meeting commissioners will be pressured to change their vote so not to put political pressure on the council. 

“Their attitude has been we won’t deal with it and we’ll just raise taxes,” she said. “I think they’re just scared of the unions.” 

Meanwhile the city continues to negotiate with its unions on a three percent salary giveback this year to help the city balance its books. If the unions don’t comply, City Manager Phil Kamlarz has threatened to raise the money by instituting monthly one-day closures of all non-essential city services starting July 1.  

Because the city would have to give employees a month notice before the first shutdown, a resolution on union concessions must be hammered out by June 1, said Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna. 

Eric Landes-Brenman of Local One of the Public Employees Union, which represents 160 city managers has proposed the city take advantage of a state retirement program to defer retirement contributions for employees for several years until the city’s finances are in better shape and stock market returns improve. 


Ballot Measures To Be Considered 

In addition to the usual suspects to be considered by the council at tonight’s meeting—measures to publicly finance campaigns and raise property taxes to offset the city’s $10 million budget deficit—the council will get its first look at measures that would change Berkeley rent control laws and take a different tact in raising revenue.  

Without any prodding from the council, the Transportation Commission has proposed doubling the city’s off-street parking tax from 10 to 20 percent to raise $551,000 for the general fund. The tax hike, said Transportation Commissioner Wendy Alfsen would tax service users instead of property owners like most of the proposed taxes the council is considering. 

The commission originally wanted to dedicate the revenue for transportation-related improvements, but after learning that state law would require that type of tax to win two-thirds of the vote, the commission opted for the added revenue to go to the general fund. 

At 20 percent, Berkeley would have the second highest off-street parking taxes in the state, behind San Francisco, which has a 25 percent rate. 

Councilmember Betty Olds said she doubted the council would vote to raise the price of parking in the midst of the city losing the Kittredge Street parking lot.  

After a series of official meetings between four members of the City Council and the rent board, known as a 4X4 Committee, the council can ask for voter approval to several changes in the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, two of which would provide added protection for renters. 

One provision would place tenants with Section 8 vouchers under rent control. Previously, participants in the federal housing program have not qualified for rent control because the city feared that landlords would opt out of the program if rent increases were constrained. 

Historically, under the Section 8 program, a tenant pays 30 percent of his income towards the apartment unit and a federal subsidy covers the rest of the rent, including a market rate rent increase. However, the Bush administration has changed the program so that if the landlord raises the rent, the tenant must pay the increase, in addition to paying 30 percent of his income.  

According to a city staff report, some Section 8 tenants have already opted out of the program in response to the increased rent burden. By applying the city’s rent control laws to Section 8 units, tenants would be safeguarded from large upsurges in the rental market, the staff report said. 

The commission also recommended new language in the ordinance that would prohibit a landlord from “unreasonably” refusing a subletter in circumstances where a tenant’s roommate had moved out of the apartment. Rent Board Executive Director Jay Kelekian said that a small minority of landlords refused to allow tenants to refill open rooms in order to create frequent turnover of the unit and bring it up to market rent. 

Additionally the council will also reconsider a ballot initiative to make Berkeley the first city in the country to publicly finance elections. The measure before the council Tuesday would create a “Fair election Fund” that would annually appropriate no more than $490,000 annually to fund eligible candidates for public office. 

A similar ballot measure is being circulated by the Berkeley Fair Election Coalition. Should the council fail to put their measure on the ballot, coalition members have pledged to move ahead with their proposal. 

The council will also consider a litany of tax measures to fund programs and services jeopardized the by the budget crisis. Among the proposals include, $1.6 million for youth services, $1.7 million for library services, $1.2 million to repair storm drains and clean creek water, 1.2 million for paramedic services and between $2 and $3 million in utility users tax increases.