Fire Company Closed, Library Open in Final Budget By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday July 01, 2005

With onlookers clapping in approval, the City Council passed a budget Tuesday that slashed city jobs and services, but provided enough money for the library to reopen its doors on Sundays. 

On July 13, the library will present its board with a proposal to open the main branch seven days a week beginning in September, said Library Financial Director Beverli Marshall in an interview. Her comment came after the council passed a higher library tax rate increase than asked for by the library board of directors. 

Other departments in the city didn’t fare as well this year. 

Today (Friday) the city begins periodic fire company closures to save $1.1 million in overtime expenses. Fire Department overtime cost the city roughly $2.4 million this fiscal year, about 25 percent higher than original projections. 

Under the Fire Department’s plan, the city will close up to two fire companies at a given time rather than pay firefighters overtime to replace workers on vacation or leave. Minimum staffing levels will be reduced from 34 to 28. 

Chief Debra Pryor told the council that fire companies serving the Berkeley hills would be immune from closures during fire season which extends until the end of the year. The rotating closures were selected as an alternative to shutting down one of Berkeley’s two ladder truck companies. 

The struggle over this year’s budget took on a roller coaster quality. 

While soaring personnel costs and flat revenues opened up a $8.9 million shortfall, Berkeley’s sizzling real estate market netted the city an extra $3.5 million from the city’s property transfer tax. 

During meetings over the past half-year, the council opted to allocate most of the windfall for capital projects like street repair and technology upgrades, while slashing money to city departments and community agencies by an average of 10 percent. 

It was the third consecutive year of cuts in Berkeley. Since 2003, the council has slashed $20 million and reduced its work force by 10 percent. For fiscal year 2006, which begins Friday, the council cut $8 million from its general fund and eliminated 52 positions, all of which were vacant.  

Berkeley anticipates erasing its structural budget deficit by 2009 in part by denying employees raises for the first two years of future contacts.  

With most budget issues already resolved by Tuesday’s meeting, the final bone of contention was a proposal from Councilmember Dona Spring to transfer $500,000 set aside for street repair and technology upgrades for customer service improvements to community agencies that serve the poor.  

Spring was backed by Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson, but others on the council opposed reducing funding to capital projects. Councilmember Gordon Wozniak defended the technology upgrades as a way to improve worker efficiency at a time when the city was cutting jobs to balance the budget. Councilmember Darryl Moore, who had lent his name to an earlier request to restore funding to the agencies, said infrastructure repairs were too vital to cut.  

“We have to do something about the potholes and cracks in our streets,” he said. 

Ultimately the council voted 8-1 on a compromise that mirrored a proposal offered by Mayor Tom Bates, which restored funding to several agencies but didn’t go as far as Spring’s plan. The council allocated an extra $4,000 for the disability agency Center for Independent Living and $12,000 for the city’s public access station, Berkeley Community Media, and agreed to consider restoring $225,000 in funding for local non-profits in December. Councilmember Worthington cast the lone no vote, insisting the budget neglected the needs of low income residents. 

After passing the budget, the council unanimously voted to raise the library tax 5.26 percent, equivalent to the California Personal Income Growth index this year. The library board has asked for a 4.8 percent increase which was equal to the preliminary income growth figures available when at the time of the board vote.  

The higher rate affords the library an extra $50,000 next year and guarantees that the main branch will reopen Sundays. Last July the library closed Sundays and reduced hours at branches to balance its budget. Marshall said library brass would poll the public on which hours to restore on Sundays. 


Other Items 

• The council voted 8-1 (Olds no) to allocate to the city’s trust fund for affordable housing any money received from the sale of the city’s health building at 2344 Sixth Street above the city’s $2.4 million asking price. 

• Mayor Bates withdrew his proposal to require that all confidentiality agreements the council enters into for land use law suits include a provision allowing for public review and comment before the council settles the suit. 

Last week, Bates had pushed for a vote on the proposal he co-authored with Councilmember Worthington. According to his chief of staff, Cisco De Vries, the mayor was concerned that the proposal might be illegal on grounds that the council can’t vote on policies that bind future city councils. 

• By a 6-0-3 vote (Wozniak, Olds and Capitelli abstain), the council approved a resolution calling on the Bush Administration to create a cabinet level Department of Peace. The proposal came to the council after failing to win a majority in Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission.