In my years as Berkeley’s City Manager, it was my job to carefully manage the City’s budget. I am proud that our city was able to continue in its history of innovation and excellent service while maintaining a sterling bond rating on Wall Street.
But the services we have all come to count on are being threatened by a fiscal crisis affecting cities throughout the state. While Berkeley is unique in many ways, we are not exempt from these fiscal problems.
Prior to my retirement from the city a year ago, we worked hard to address this deficit. I helped cut millions from the city budget, implemented a hiring freeze, and took other actions to protect our budget and our services from serious reductions. Earlier this year, city employees agreed to open their contracts and take reductions that saved the city $1.2 million. But despite having cut over $14 million in the past three years, the city faces another $7.5 million deficit next year.
To address this temporary crisis, Berkeley has placed several tax measures on the ballot. This year the stakes are too high for me to sit on the sidelines. I am asking my friends and neighbors to vote Yes on Measures J and K.
Measures J and K make sense for Berkeley taxpayers. These temporary taxes will provide approximately $4.9 million to replace funding Berkeley lost due to state and federal cuts. Most importantly, they will protect the services that make Berkeley the kind of community we all want to live in.
Measure J would increase the city’s existing utility tax by 1.5 percent to provide emergency funding for front-line city services until the state returns local funding and the economy improves. This would work out to about $4.50 per month for the typical Berkeley household. Without the new revenue Measure J would provide, the City is planning to reduce health and social services, eliminate seven police officers, and cut senior programs and community agencies. At the end of 2008, when the fiscal crisis should be ending, Measure J will automatically expire.
Measure K is a temporary increase in the existing real estate transfer tax that will generate enough funds to keep essential youth services in place until the fiscal crisis is over. Measure K will save some of Berkeley’s most effective youth programs, including city-funded after school and summer programs, school crossing guards, school-based health and mental health programs, tutoring and mentoring, and emergency services for homeless youth.
To pay for these programs, Measure K requires people buying expensive new private or commercial property to pay an increased transfer tax. For properties over $600,000, the transfer tax would be increased by 0.5 percent. For those over $1 million, the tax would increase by 1 percent. According to the City’s analysis, this will affect only about 250-300 corporate and private property sales a year. Measure K will automatically sunset in 2010.
The City Council was careful not to try and balance the budget with tax increases alone. In fact, most of the deficit has and will be closed with spending cuts. But without some new revenue, serious cuts are inevitable.
In the end, your vote in November is about choices. The city will continue to balance its budget every year even without this new revenue. The choice is whether we can afford to maintain the same level of services we provide today.
I am choosing to protect what makes Berkeley special by joining with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the Berkeley Police Officers Association, Mayor Tom Bates, and many other community leaders in voting Yes on Measures J and K.
Weldon Rucker retired as Berkeley’s City Manager in 2003.