Council Set to Hear Public on Budget Wishes

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday June 20, 2006

While the City Council will hold a public hearing on the budget tonight (Tuesday), only a fraction of Berkeley’s $300 million budget is actually in question. 

Most of the budget is comprised of fixed costs: parks, police, fire, the planning department, the housing authority and more. These are ongoing costs that rise according to the cost of living and labor negotiations. 

There is about $4.4 million available for one-time expenditures, according to Budget Manager Tracy Vesely. The councilmembers have referred about three dozen budget items to a list they would like to see funded with that money.  

Funds available come mostly from more revenue than anticipated from real estate transfer taxes, the sale of property on Sixth Street and other property-related revenue, according to Vesely. 

If the council approves an increase in parking meter fees from 75 cents per hour to $1 an hour, as the city manager has recommended, that will add about $400,000 to the funds available to the council. (The funds will add up to about $800-$1 million per year, but it would take six months to get the meters recalibrated, Vesely said.) 

Meanwhile, the eight councilmembers, mayor and the public are likely to have a wide range of opinions on how to spend the available funds. 

Councilmember Darryl Moore said he wants to spend money on “those things that serve our young people.” He has recommended a $50,000 expenditure on the Berkeley Boosters/Police Activities League.  

Also, fixing storm drains is a priority, Moore said. In his budget recommendations, the city manager has called for a one-time expenditure of $2.5 million for storm drains above the budgeted annual expenditure of about $3 million.  

And Moore wants to see the planning process on San Pablo Avenue expedited. That would take hiring a senior planner at a cost of about $100,000. The planner would work on Telegraph Avenue area, San Pablo Avenue and other projects. 

Moore said some of the funds required for one-time projects might come from the reserve. The city has 11 percent of its general fund in reserve, he said. “It may be we’re talking about some of that.”  

Vesely, however, said the city manager was considering keeping a higher percentage of the budget in reserve. The amount on hand (actually 7 percent liquid reserve) would fund the city after a disaster like Katrina for one month only, she said. 

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said he had the impression that the city manager had already allocated funds for one-time expenditures. If funds become available from the parking meters, however, he, like Moore, would like to see the Berkeley Boosters funded. 

“I’m worried about crime—they do great things with kids,” he said. 

And, Wozniak said he’d like to see the fire department funded. It would cost $900,000 to end the rotation of “brown-outs,” where stations close (maximum one per day) to save money on overtime. “Even raising the parking-meter rate would fund only part of it,” he said. 

While much attention has been paid to funding Telegraph Avenue improvements—Councilmember Kriss Worthington is calling for restoring funding at least to the programs that were cut on Telegraph Avenue, including two bicycle police officers and a mental health team ($324,000)—Councilmember Dona Spring is asking for some of the same attention to the downtown area. She wants a mobile crisis team for Telegraph and for downtown. 

“Both suffer from some of the same problems,” she said. 

Spring is also calling for $1 million to be spent for affordable housing, especially for low and very-low income people.  

At tonight’s public hearing, citizens are likely to line up to lobby council for dozens of worthy projects. 

“The system encourages people to ask for more than there is,” Wozniak said. “We have to make a realistic assessment. What will get funded will need five votes.”