With Berkeley voters set to decide the fate of $8 million in proposed tax increases, Mayor Tom Bates publicized Monday a preliminary report claiming that the city on average offers more services for about the same price than comparable California cities.
The report, first released as a draft two weeks ago by City Manager Phil Kamlarz, claims that compared to eight other California cities Berkeley is near the top in providing police, firefighters, senior centers, library branches and swimming pools and just above average in spending and the size of its workforce.
Opponents of the tax hikes have staked their opposition in part on claims that neighboring cities, such as Hayward and Oakland, spend comparatively less money and employ fewer city workers than Berkeley.
The eight cities included in the study are Concord, Fremont, Hayward, Richmond, Oakland, Pasadena, Palo Alto and Santa Monica.
On the survey, Berkeley finished fourth in the number of residents per firefighter and third in the number of residents per police officers, library branches, senior centers and swimming pools.
When including all city funds, Berkeley spent $2,931 per resident, fourth on the list, less than Palo Alto at $7,311, Santa Monica at $4,934 and Pasadena at $4,029. The report also found that Berkeley has 91 residents per city employee, fourth on the list, more than Pasadena at 69, Palo Alto at 76 and Santa Monica at 88. Employee figures were adjusted to exclude employees who work in services not typically found in other cities like airports and seaports.
“This punches a hole in the argument that we have a bloated bureaucracy,” said Mayor Bates.
Bates is backing the tax measures as a remedy for the city’s structural budget deficit which stands at $7.5 million for the coming year.
“It says to me that we pay a little more, but we get a lot more for our money than other cities,” he added.
Former Mayor Shirley Dean, who presided over a series of generous union contracts during her second term and is now a member of the city watchdog group Budget Watch, questioned the validity of the report.
“My first impression is that they handpicked the cities to make their case for the taxes,” she said. Dean questioned why the city report didn’t include the same cities the city uses when negotiating labor contracts.
Budget Watch and other groups opposed to the tax hikes have long called for a comparison like the one provided by the city manager.
Kamlarz said Berkeley has traditionally compared itself to the cities in the report because they are either neighbors, similar in size, offer similar services or host major universities.
Berkeley provides some services and sponsors certain programs not found in many neighboring cities. The city has its own health department, refuse service and camps and operates a marina and a rent board, all of which add to city expenses. The three cities in the report found to spend more per resident than Berkeley—Palo Alto, Pasadena and Santa Monica—all operate their own public utility and Santa Monica maintains its own transportation system.
Rob Wrenn, chair of Berkeley’s Transportation Commission, said the report essentially “compares apples to oranges” and misses the essential issue behind the proposed tax hikes: the balance between employee salaries and resident taxes.
Beginning in 2001 the city negotiated long-term contracts with city unions that improved retirement benefits and provided fixed raises far higher than cost of living increases. The contract with police offers alone, Wrenn said, has cost the city $30 million.
“The contracts have made tax increases inevitable,” Wrenn said. “Voters are going to lose either way. Either we lose services or our taxes go up.”
Although the charts produced by the mayor’s office were released to the public Monday, Laurie Capitelli, the mayor’s choice in the upcoming City Council District 5, apparently received an advance copy. At a candidate forum hosted by the Northeast Berkeley Neighborhood Association last week, he produced copies of the charts and referred to them in a defense of the city’s handling of its budget crisis.