City Council to Address Budget Deficit, Consider Commission, Event Funding Cuts By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday April 19, 2005

The City Council Tuesday will be devoted to tackling the city’s projected $8.9 million budget deficit, which the council must close by the end of June. On the agenda is a proposal to scale back citizen commission meetings to save staff time and a report on priority projects from the Planning, Housing, Transportation and Economic Development departments.  

Among other cuts, the council will consider reducing its budget for special events from $125,000 to $101,540 next year. Under the proposal the Berkeley Arts Festival would see funding fall from $18,000 to $10,000 and the Solano Stroll would drop from $9,000 to $5,000.  

The council will also discuss whether to spend $600,000 to make the fountain at Civic Center Park flow for the first time in more than 40 years. But with little money available for other programs, some residents are protesting that a renovated fountain will leave other city needs high and dry.  

“During rough times we should be spending money on keeping our programs going. The fountain can wait until the budget turns around,” said Bill Hamilton, one of many Berkeley swimmers who are promising to lobby the council Tuesday to dedicate some of the money to keep at least one public pool open this winter. 

Councilmembers Darryl Moore and Linda Maio are asking the Planning Department to add to its priority list a review of zoning rules for San Pablo Avenue. They say that since the locus of city development has moved to the thoroughfare, it is time for the Planning Commission to review zoning rules. 

The Civic Center fountain arrived in Berkeley in the 1940s as a gift from San Francisco, which included it in its Golden Gate Exposition of 1939. Sometime in the 1960s engineering problems left the fountain dry. A renovated fountain was at the heart of a proposal to upgrade Civic Center Park, but the renovations were nearly scrapped earlier this year when a preliminary cost estimate from the city’s designer put the park project at $1.4 million, about $400,000 more than available city funding. One reason the fountain is so expensive is that state regulations require that fountains have the same water quality as swimming pools. 

But when the city learned it would receive more than $3 million in unanticipated revenue from taxes on property transfers, City Manager Phil Kamlarz proposed spending $600,000 on the fountain, one-third of which will go to pay for maintenance during the first three years after it is renovated.  

“The rationale is that this project has been worked on for a number of years and that it would be worthwhile for the council to entertain going ahead and doing it,” said Parks Recreation and Waterfront Director Marc Seleznow. 

Berkeley policy is to use unanticipated funds for capital projects rather than preserving programs, yet councilmembers are under pressure not to sacrifice programs for the long dormant fountain. 

The fountain has an advocacy group of its own, including the backing of local Native Americans. Indigenous advocates had originally pushed for replacing the fountain with a Turtle Island design, based on an indigenous creation tale. After preservationists objected to dumping the current structure, the two groups, after lengthy debate, reached a compromise that the renovated fountain would include a Turtle Island component and commemorative plaques to the importance of local tribes. 

John Curl, a local woodworker who has worked closely with Native American leaders, said they would oppose any delays to the project. 

“To pull the rug out from under their feet at the eleventh hour, it’s really a slap in the face,” he said. “From the view of Native Americans, it’s one more broken promise.” 

Another controversial item on Tuesday’s agenda is a proposal to combine four city commissions into two and reduce the meeting schedules of 25 of the city’s 45 citizen commissions. The proposal also calls for eliminating staff support at commission subcommittee meetings. According to a city report, the changes would free up the equivalent of two full-time city workers for other tasks. 

Those serving on the commissions targeted for reductions oppose the plan. Asked about the proposal to combine the Disaster Commission with the Fire Safety Commission, Disaster Commissioner Jesse Townley warned of severe consequences. 

“This means that more people will be killed and more property will be destroyed when the next earthquake hits,” he said. “This shows the real-world effects of nit-picking budget cuts.” 

The other commissions slated to be combined are Public Works and Solid Waste. Assistant City Manager Arrietta Chakos said city leaders hadn’t decided how the two commissions would be consolidated. 

The Transportation Commission has already written the council asking them not to reduce its meetings from once a month to once every other month, and Disability Commissioner Emily Wilcox said her commission was also unified in opposition to the plan. 

She said meeting every two months would put the commission at a bigger disadvantage in being able to react to breaking events in the city. 

“It just hampers us even more,” she said. “We’ll be in the mix too late.”