When the freshly elected Berkeley City Council convenes next month it will have three new members and one unenviable challenge.
After voters rejected all four tax increases that would have raised $8 million for libraries, paramedic services, youth programs, and the city’s cash-strapped general fund, councilmembers will have to start cutting and slashing themselves out of a $7.5 million general fund deficit projected next year.
“We’re going to have our backs against the wall,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, who was not up for reelection Tuesday.
City voters did approve Measure B, an $8 million-a-year property tax for Berkeley schools. With two-thirds vote needed to pass, it was approved by 71.5 percent of voters, according preliminary results.
Joining the council in December will be Max Anderson, Laurie Capitelli and Darryl Moore. Anderson defeated eight-term incumbent Maudelle Shirek, Jeffrey Benefiel and Laura Menard in District 3. Capitelli defeated Barbara Gilbert and Jesse Townley to succeed Miriam Hawley in District 5. Moore defeated Sharon Kidd to succeed Margaret Breland in District 2. In District 6, incumbent Betty Olds defeated Norine Smith.
“Winning under these circumstances is humbling,” said Anderson, whose win effectively ends the political career of Shirek, a seminal leader in the civil rights movement. Earlier this year Shirek was thrown off the ballot when an aide failed to properly file her candidate papers. Representatives for Shirek did not return phone calls for this story.
Menard, Anderson’s other main opponent, doubted that she and her supporters could work with him after a contentious campaign. “He went too low,” said Menard who accused Anderson of co-opting her issues and portraying her as lacking compassion.
Opponents of the city tax measures, who took no position on tax measures not proposed by the city, painted the vote as a mandate for change in city hall.
“We concluded that the city was out of control, but that we weren’t in a position to make judgments on other jurisdictions,” said David Wilson, a leader of Berkeleyans Against Soaring Taxes. Without a united opposition, voter passed the school district’s Measure B; Measure CC, a $42 million tax for the East Bay Regional Park District; and Measure AA, a bond measure to raise up to $980 million for seismic retrofits to BART.
While privately several on the council had predicted that voters would reject some of the tax measures, the clean sweep left councilmembers second guessing their Election Day strategy.
“We put too many things on at once,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “If we just had the library tax and one other one, they could have passed.”
The library tax, Measure L, failed with 50.5 percent of the vote, far below the two-thirds threshold needed to pass. Measure K, a tax on youth services, won 53.5 percent of the vote. Measure M, an tax increase for the city’s Paramedic fund, netted 50 percent. Measure J, an increase to the utility tax and the only tax that needed a simple majority to pass, garnered just 37 percent of the vote.
Worthington blamed the “sensory overload” of tax measures on the council’s impulse to appease council members who championed different taxes, but, which he said, only served to divide the council on the different proposals.
Councilmember Dona Spring agreed that the council approved too many tax measures, but said legal constraints prohibited the city from proposing one large measure that the entire council could rally around.
Mayor Tom Bates, who said he was most surprised that voters rejected the utility tax, chalked up the defeat not to a lack of confidence in City Hall but to a regional backlash against city taxes.
“Look at San Francisco,” he said. “They have their most popular mayor in recent years and they rejected tax measures too.”
Elsewhere in the East Bay, Oakland and El Cerrito passed taxes, while Fremont rejected a tax increase.
The first groups to feel the pinch of the rejected tax measures will be about 20 community agencies that received six months of funding beginning last July with a contingency that the funding would expire at the end of the year if voters rejected Measures J and K. Among the groups slated for cuts at the start of the new year are the Berkeley Boosters and a youth homeless shelter.
Next year the city must close a $7.5 million deficit. Already City Manager Phil Kamlarz has proposed $4 million in cuts that include permanently closing a fire truck company and eliminating vacant positions in the police department.
The city over the next few months must now chart further cuts, said Budget Manager Tracy Vesely. She is scheduled to present a budget update when the new council convenes for the first time on Dec. 7.
Service at the library, which reduced hours this summer, will remain the same through next June, when further cuts to the book budget or operating hours will likely be necessary, said Director of Library Services Jackie Griffin.
“It’s going to be pretty devastating,” said Mayor Bates. “I don’t think people fully understood what they were voting for when they opposed taxes.”
But councilmember Olds questioned “how much real cutting we’ll have to do.
“Some of those measures are things we can live without,” she said. “It might not be that bad.”
The defeat of the tax measures is expected to have pronounced ramifications for city unions, some of which pumped thousands of dollars into campaigns to support the measures.
After most unions agreed to defer a portion of their scheduled salary increases this year in return for the city renouncing its right to force the unions to take the same action for the remainder of their contracts, union leaders are expecting the city to demand more sacrifices.
“We expect them either to impose mandatory time off or initiate cuts in services, which might include layoffs,” said Leland Johnson, President of SEIU 535, which represents city librarians. He added that no matter the city’s demands, his union would refuse to defer scheduled salary increases for a second consecutive year.
Eric Landes-Brenman, President of Public Employee Union Local 1, said he also feared layoffs, and called on the city to work with unions to identify areas where the city could operate more efficiently.
The new council appears likely to maintain the fluid alliances that have become its trademark since Mayor Bates took office in 2002. Despite the defeat of the tax measures he supported, Bates, who has endorsed six of the eight members of the new council, remains a potent political force.
Councilmember Olds predicted the new council would be loosely divided into three ideological groups with Anderson joining Spring and Worthington on the left, Moore joining Bates and Maio in the center, and Capitelli joining herself and Wozniak on the right.
Spring, who like Olds often found herself voting in dissent, expected Anderson to bolster the progressive wing of the council, which she said suffered when Councilmember Shirek began voting more conservatively.