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Council Considers Sustainable Berkeley, Fire Department Funding

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday February 27, 2007

While most of the city’s budget questions are being referred to the months-long budget process that will end in June or July, the City Council will vote tonight (Tuesday) on disbursing a $3.3 million windfall. 

The serial council meetings begin at 5 p.m., with a workshop on proposed rules to curb underage drinking and rowdy parties. At 6 p.m., the council—plus two Housing Authority tenants—will meet as the Berkeley Housing Authority to talk about new rate structures for Section 8 voucher-holders and a new governance structure. 

The regular council meeting—with its 1,220-page agenda—will begin at 7 p.m. and address mobile fire protection, raising planner Vivian Kahn’s pay to $100 per hour, appealing a carry-out food outlet on Euclid Avenue, labor issues at the Shattuck Cinema, and joining the Center for Constitutional Rights’ lawsuit in Germany against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others.  

Mid-year allocations 

Flush with $3.3 million in higher-than-anticipated revenue, mostly from investments and parking fines, City Manager Phil Kamlarz has recommended the following expenditures: 

• $1 million to fully fund fire department operations through December 2008, ending the rolling fire station closures; 

• $200,000 for Telegraph Avenue improvements (see accompanying story). 

• $500,000 for economic development efforts. 

• $200,000 for public safety computer upgrades. 

• $100,000 for a Sustainable Berkeley grant for greenhouse gas reduction. 

• $1.3 million for deferred maintenance. 

While the city manager’s report indicates generally how the funds will be spent, the $100,000 grant proposed for Sustainable Berkeley to write a plan to reduce greenhouse gasses locally provides the councilmembers with no information about the organization. It is actually a collection of various participants: an environmental organization (the Ecology Center), UC Berkeley, a private dentist, a healthcare non-profit, a former city employee and the Community Energy Services Corporation (CESC), Sustainable Berkeley’s fiscal sponsor, which is a non-profit set up by the city and funded by the city and PG&E. 

“I think I need to know how the money will be spent,” said Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, who said he planned to ask questions about the expenditure at tonight’s (Tuesday) meeting. “The last thing we need is a really impressive report that sits on the shelf.” 

In an attempt to gather more information about Sustainable Berkeley—which received $133,000 from the city in the fall, but has apparently presented no report to the city on how those funds were spent—the Planet submitted a Freedom of Information request last week to the city manager for details about an organization that councilmembers and the public know little about.  

Among the documents the Planet requested were: the group’s agendas and minutes, contracts and work agreements with vendors and employees, documents that established the group; names of members of all committees and subcommittees, documents that relate to the group’s work, names of steering committee members, and documents showing how they were chosen. 

The city has yet to respond, with one city staffer telling a Planet reporter that the time to get the information will be longer than it would have otherwise been because it was submitted as an FOI request, which needs to go to the city manager and the city attorney before documents are released. 

Sustainable Berkeley has been put together by Mayor Tom Bates. His chief of staff, Cisco De Vries is working half-time for Sustainable Berkeley.  


BPD gets F- in public information 

The Contra Costa Times recently gave Berkeley’s police department an F- grade for not making public information available and councilmember Dona Spring is asking the department to change. 

The Times report says: “The personnel that our auditor contacted on the day of the audit were not helpful at all. They seemed very confused and ultimately refused to accept any part of the auditor's request. The department then denied that any auditor had visited.” 

Spring is asking the city manager to report to the council in 60 days “with a plan to provide the public access to Berkeley’s Police Department information, including police reports, as required by state law.”  


Euclid neighborhood wants hearing on fast food outlet 

More than 300 persons signed petitions saying they oppose adding “another take out food facility on Euclid Avenue…” Nonetheless, in November, the zoning board approved the new business. Neighbors are asking the City Council to set a public hearing on the issue and reverse the zoning board. 


Other matters 

• Supporting the workers at the Shattuck Cinema, working without a contract with Landmarks Theaters; 

• Supporting a boycott of Hornblower Cruises, including its Alcatraz Cruises subsidiary, to support the efforts of former Blue and Gold Fleet workers, displaced when Hornblower took over contract services for Alcatraz.  

• Supporting the Center for Constitutional Rights’ lawsuit in Germany against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others for alleged human rights violations. While the Peace and Justice Commission is supporting this effort, the city manager and city attorney are opposing it,because, they say, they lack experience in filing lawsuits in countries outside the United States. Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, responded in a Jan. 3 letter to the city, saying: “There is absolutely no liability of any kind for signing on as a co-complainant.”  


BHA discusses new rents, new governance 

The Berkeley Housing Authority will consider approval of a new payment structure affecting about 200 of the 1,700 households benefiting from federally subsidized Section 8 vouchers. While the new rent structure officially begins March 1, the BHA will absorb the added costs and make the change May 1.  

The Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) limits the amount of money the BHA can pay for Section 8 apartments. In the past, it has been limited to an area standard of 110 percent of what is called fair market rents.  

On Jan. 25, the Housing Department received permission from HUD to pay up to 120 percent of the Fair Market Rents for two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments, so most Section 8 renters will not have to pay anything beyond the current 30 percent of their income. 

That leaves about 200 households with studio and one-bedroom apartments who face up to $45 in out-of-pocket expenses. Some of these people who rent studio apartments will be given one-bedroom vouchers; that is, they will stay in the studios they already rent, but will be given subsidies as if they lived in one-bedroom apartments, said housing director Steve Barton. 

While the BHA is permitted to spend more money to absorb the higher rents for the two- three- and four-bedroom units, it does not receive increased funding from HUD. This could mean, eventually, that the city will have to decrease the number of subsidized units, as people come off of Section 8. 

BHA will also consider a new governance structure, in which the mayor would appoint seven members to the board, which would retain the two tenant members, and the council would approve the appointments. (City commissions are generally appointed by the mayor and individual City Council members according to the provisions of the 1975 Fair Representation Ordinance initiative.) HUD considers BHA a “troubled” agency, in part, because the City Council, sitting as BHA, does not have the time to properly oversee the agency.