Election Section

City’s Failed Tax Measures: Mourning Vs. Morning After: By BARBARA GILBERT

Friday November 05, 2004

On Election Day, Berkeley voters trounced five ballot measures put forth by our political establishment (mayor, City Council, city manager, city labor unions, and various vested and invested friends of). Four of these (Measures J, K, L, and M) would have resulted in direct tax increases upon an already overtaxed population. The fifth (Measure H) was an indirect tax increase, since it would have committed the city to creating a $1,800,000 fund for political candidates. 

There are some lessons here. 

You c an’t assume that the people spending and browbeating the most always win. While the campaign finance filings are not complete, and in some cases may hide the ball, it appears that the proponents of Measures H, J, K, L, and M outspent the opposition by som ething like seven to one. Most of the proponents’ money came from labor unions, developers, political interest groups, and other organized sources. 

In Berkeley, there is a substantial disconnect between the governors and the governed. The tax measure ele ction results were not entirely unpredictable, had any of our leaders really listened to the community during the last year. Last fall, the first parcel tax package was routed. Subsequently, the City Council heard repeatedly from an informed citizenry about the city’s tax and budget situation Instead of listening, the political establishment assumed that voters would not (could not?) think critically, and would vote reflexively for any tax with a feel-good label and heavy-duty marketing. The focus of the pro-tax campaign: “It’s for our kids, our library, our very physical survival.” However, no real citizen support ever developed for these measures. Instead, voters listened to and learned from the budget expertise of a coalition of homeowners, neighborhoo ds, and citizens. Voters successfully absorbed complex information about Berkeley’s relative tax burden, structural deficit, labor costs, General Fund backfilling, skewed program priorities, and unevaluated expenditures. 

The city’s budget problems are tr uly structural and not amenable to a quick fix. Revenues in every recent year have gone up by far more than inflation, but costs have gone up even more! The library, with a 45 percent increase in expenditures over just five years, may be the most flagrant example, but it is not alone. The built-in causes of cost escalation are overstaffing, excessive wage/benefit packages, and duplicative or outmoded programs. Our residents, knowing this, do not want a budget band-aid—they want a budget cure. 

Given the v oters’ wisdom on the tax measures, the big question is “How will the political establishment and its allies respond?” Will there be a new attitude and approach after Nov. 2, or just more of the same? Mourning or Morning? More of the same will be hand-wrin ging, then anger, then punishment--announcements of reductions in essential or cherished city services, such as a fire truck or Sunday library services.  

Taxes versus service cuts is a false choice and not what the voters are seeking. Those of us who led the opposition to the tax measures may be underfunded political neophytes, but we are not unintelligent. For nearly a year we have been studying this city’s budget. Along the way, we have repeatedly made constructive suggestions for new revenue streams, prioritizing and evaluating services, and resolving labor issues in a fair manner. If implemented, our suggestions will move us toward a balanced and reasonable budget for hard times and will actually improve the quality of city services.  

The city’s own Citizens Budget Review Commission made similar points in their June report, a report that was effectively buried by the city. It should now be exhumed and read.  

The city needs a plan for long-term financial stability that does not rely on the return of Good Times and does not extract a pound of flesh from our overtaxed populace. The city must truly act as a good steward of the peoples hard-earned money, rather than as a vengeful overlord protecting the interests of its retainers. Berkeley residents and taxpayers deserve no less. We have a vested interest in the long term social and economic sustainability of our community.  

So, now that there will be no cash infusion for a quick fix, it is time for reconstructive work at the drawing board and bargaining table. Those of us in the community who have worked so hard on these matters are on call to assist. 


Barbara Gilbert was a candidate for the District 5 City Council seat.