City Manager Phil Kamlarz announced this week that Berkeley services won’t shut down one day a month this year as he had threatened they might have to, and one city swimming pool will be spared closure this winter.
Kamlarz backed down on these two controversial budget-cutting proposals as he unveiled his proposed 2006 budget that seeks to close an $8.9 million structural deficit to the City Council Tuesday.
If the council approves his plan, residents can expect reduced fire services, a scaled-down police force, fewer youth programs and school crossing guards and cutbacks to the animal shelter, art programs and disabled ride services.
Berkeley’s senior centers remained untouched in the budget plan due mainly to a city proposal to start a case management program that would receive $300,000 in Medi-Cal reimbursements.
Although the council does not have to approve a budget until late June, they have already begun tinkering with Kamlarz’s numbers.
On Tuesday, councilmembers declared their support for funding,—with as much as $100,000—the Creeks Task Force efforts to revise the city’s creeks ordinance. Those funds are not accounted for in the budget for fiscal year 2006, which begins July 1.
In other matters Tuesday, the council approved spending $52,000 to start a bond fund to pay for clean energy products, voted to help a homeless woman recover her impounded truck and dogs, and to allow long-term Berkeley tenants to convert their units to condominiums without paying a fee.
Berkeley plunged into the red three years ago as stagnant revenues failed to keep pace with rising employee benefit costs. Under the city manager’s revised budget forecast, Berkeley faces structural deficits of $8.9 million for fiscal year 2006, which would decrease to $1.6 million in 2007, $1.3 million in 2008 and $0 in 2009 under his recommended cuts. In 2007, the state is scheduled to restore $1.8 million in city revenue, as required under Proposition 1A approved by voters last November.
The key to balancing the budget in 2009, Kamlarz said, is controlling employee costs. He has proposed offering no raises to city employees for the first two years of future contracts. The budget also projects that the real estate boom, which has supplied the city with nearly $5 million in unanticipated tax revenue this past year, will continue and that the economy will improve.
Kamlarz has reached a tentative agreement with officials from several city unions to forgo their contractual right to carry over vacation time beyond 320 hours and have the city buy back excess vacation days. The agreement is an alternative to shutting down non-essential city services one day a month, which would have saved $3 million next year. The vacation deal is anticipated to save $3 million over the course of three years.
Also, under pressure from pool users, Kamlarz has backed off his proposal in March to close all three city pools this winter. The city will use $52,000 in unanticipated revenue and another $40,000 from administrative cost savings to keep open one pool, most likely the pool at King Middle School, Kamlarz said.
With employee costs comprising 77 percent of city spending, Kamlarz has proposed cutting 57.24 full-time positions in fiscal year 2006, most of which are already vacant. No city employees would lose their jobs under the plan.
To save $1.1 million on employee overtime costs, the Fire Department is proposing to rotate engine and truck company closures throughout the year and at times reduce the minimum staffing requirement from 34 firefighters to 28.
With most of the budget news already released in March, and a public hearing scheduled for next week’s meeting, the council offered few comments on the budget proposal. During public comment, several elderly and disabled people protested planned cuts to the city’s paratransit program, and two members of Service Employees International Union Local 535, which represents city employees, expressed concerns about cuts to city positions.
The major question before the council is whether they will dip into more than $7 million in available funds next year to save social programs. Kamlarz has proposed spending the bulk of it on capital projects like street repair, storm drain improvements, a new police dispatch system and improved customer service technology.
Elizabeth Gill, a long-time Berkeley homeless woman, left Tuesday’s meeting feeling more confident that she will soon recover her pick-up truck and two dogs. On Feb. 13, she parked her truck at the Berkeley Bowl to go shopping and returned to find it lifted on to a tow truck while her two dogs were set to be carted off to the animal shelter.
Because many of the parking fines she had accumulated dated back more than one year, Gill did not qualify for community service to work off the tickets and had no way to pay the fines to regain her truck. And without her truck, she said, she had no place for her dogs, which she chose to leave at the shelter.
By a 7-0-2 vote (Olds and Wozniak abstain) the council directed City Manager Kamlarz to waive the one-year deadline for low-income people to work off their fines, to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles that the fines would be removed and to try to help the woman find housing.
Additionally, the city has waived fees for boarding the dogs at the animal shelter, which had climbed to $4,000. Now Gill must pay the $1,000 towing fee to get the truck out of Hustead’s lot in West Berkeley. She said friends in local organization’s Copwatch and Women in Black have already raised about three-quarters of the money.
Gill said she looks forward to being reunited with her two German Shepherd mixed dogs. “They’re like my kids,” she said.
Changing city policy to help one woman left several councilmembers concerned, although most backed the proposal in the end.
“It’s not a good way to do policy, folks, but sometimes you have to act,” Mayor Tom Bates said after the vote.
Tenancies in Common
Tuesday’s meeting also proved beneficial to four residents of an Oxford Street apartment building who may soon be exempt from city fees for converting the building they recently bought into condominiums.
The tenants, all of who had occupied their units for more than 10 years, purchased the building last year from the landlord as a tenancy in common (TIC).
TICs are usually considered a risky investment because shareholders do not hold title to specific units as they do for condominiums, and owners can have more trouble obtaining financing. To convert the units to condominiums, the tenants, under current Berkeley law, would have had to have paid the city about $50,000 per unit, which they said they couldn’t afford.
To help remedy their predicament, the council voted 5-4 (Maio, Worthington, Spring, Anderson, no) to authorize the city attorney to change the rule so that tenants who have lived in their units since 1995 would be exempt from the fee.
After the vote, Councilmember Betty Olds, who has co-sponsored the resolution, hugged the residents outside council chambers, telling them, “I’m thrilled to death. I don’t usually win.”
While the council made it easier for long-term tenants to convert their units to condos Tuesday, they made it more expensive for other would-be condo owners. By a 5-4 vote (Bates, Wozniak, Capitelli, Olds, no) the council raised the fee for condo conversion from 10 percent of the unit’s sale price to 12.5 percent. The fee will go to the city’s housing trust fund, which leverages affordable housing projects. Opponents of the fee hike feared that it would serve as a disincentive for owners to convert to condominiums and instead they would buy properties as TICs.
By a 7-2 vote (Wozniak and Olds, no) the council authorized Kamlarz to pay $52,000, either to for-profit venture capital firm Power Factors Inc. or to a non-profit firm to work on establishing a bond fund to help local businesses pay for clean energy projects.
Berkeley is still waiting for Oakland to also authorize money for the project. Speaking in opposition, Wozniak thought the bond was a good idea, but questioned why the city was giving money to a venture capital firm when it wouldn’t have ownership of the equipment.
“I’m not convinced we got the best deal,” he said.