City Staff’s 42 Percent Pay Jump: Who’s Really Sacrificing? By ZELDA BRONSTEIN, Commentary

Friday April 01, 2005

In the March 25-28 Daily Planet, Heath Maddox, a city staffer and union member, replies to my query—given that the city’s current contracts with unionized employees grant salary increases of 28.5 percent or (for fire and police) 31.5 percent over six yea rs, how is budgeting zero raises for two years after the current contracts expire asking city workers, in the words of a Planet reporter, “to sacrifice”?  

First off, Mr. Maddox says that the “managers at the city were given their raise[s] (27 percent) al l at once,” while “union rank and file were promised raises over a six-year period.” If this is true, it’s totally unfair. But even if it is true, how does it involve a sacrifice on the part of the rank and file?  

The larger question remains: Where’s the sacrifice in asking all city staff to forgo increases in the two years following the expiration of their current six-year contracts, given the terms of those contracts?  

My initial letter to the Planet mentioned only the 28.5 percent and 31.5 percent sa lary raises. When benefits are factored in, the increases in compensation assume truly amazing proportions, considering the state of the economy and the city’s finances. Salaries and benefits per each full-time employee in 2001 averaged $71,174. As adopted for fiscal year 2005, they averaged $101,330—an increase of 42.4 percent. For Berkeley police, the percentage change was only slightly greater—42.6 percent—but the average total compensation per full-time employee was substantially higher: from $87,561 to $124,894. A major factor in these figures is that Berkeley city employees contribute nothing toward their pensions.  

Mr. Maddox also states that “[m]embers of the city’s various employee unions voluntarily deferred 2.26 percent of our cost of living a djustment (COLA) for the last fiscal year.” Acknowledging that this “deferred adjustment will be restored later this year,” he observes that “union members will not receive retroactive pay for the 11 months that we sacrificed our COLA.”  

Again, these sta tements—all true—need to be viewed in a larger context. Between 2000 and 2004, the Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers in the Bay Area went up by only 11.1 percent. Between 2001 and 2005, Berkeley’ s General Fund revenues increased by only 9 percent. The total fiscal year 2006 General Fund deficit is now projected at $8.9 million. For fiscal years 2007 through 2009, the projected General Fund deficit ranges from $8.4 million to $9.5 million.  

Despite these conditions, in return for the 11-month COLA giveback, the unions got the council to promise that the city would not ask them for further concessions.  

“It is citizens like Ms. Bronstein,” Mr. Maddox concludes, “who will make major sacrifices in reduced quality of city services if the wages o ffered by the city are allowed to sink significantly behind those of neighboring cities and Berkeley’s qualified and competent workers respond by seeking employment that will allow them to support their families.”  

Yes, the departure of qualified and com petent workers (the staff of the city clerk’s office leap to mind) for better-paying jobs would be a serious loss.  

On the other hand, citizens like myself feel that our quality of life is already being diminished by ill-advised projects such as the Offi ce of Transportation’s scheme for Marin Avenue and by the arbitrary administration of the city’s Zoning Ordinance by the Planning Department, the Housing Department and the city attorney’s office. In these cases, absent basic reforms, a change of personne l might be a boon.  

There are more fundamental issues than ensuring that City of Berkeley salaries are commensurate with those of other municipalities. When we’re looking at annual deficits of $8-9 million, can we really afford to pay city staff 42 perce nt more than what they made in 2001 without making the ultimate sacrifice—radically altering the character of our city?  

Before Mayor Bates and the City Council go along with City Manager Kamlarz’s recommendations for cutting even more services or the mayor’s plans for turning Berkeley into Emeryville, these questions need to be answered. But first, somebody in City Hall has to ask them.  


Zelda Bronstein is a former chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission.