A group of about 10 civic-minded residents turned out for a lightly publicized public hearing on the budget at the North Berkeley Senior Center Tuesday evening, hoping city staff would listen to their ideas.
The emphasis was on public safety. “There’s just one police person at night in District 5,” Bob Allen told those present, which included Councilmember Gordon Wozniak and four employees from the city manager’s office.
This was the second in a series of three public hearings on the budget. The first was held at 10:15 p.m. as part of the May 22 City Council meeting. There, the public focused on funding social service programs, especially those that had not been funded by the federal Community Development Block Grant program.
The last public hearing on the budget will be at the June 19 City Council meeting.
In reality, most budget choices have already been made by past councils and staff. About 80 percent of the budget is personnel costs and another chunk is for fixed costs such as payment on debt, ongoing programs and maintaining “prudent reserves” of about 8 percent.
There is, however, some wiggle room for new choices, according to the city manager. That includes about $5.1 million from the $15.6 million the city is receiving this fiscal year in transfer taxes and another $2 million in savings from vacant employee positions.
City Manager Phil Kamlarz said that in order to pay for large projects—the storm water infrastructure and long-term police and fire needs—the city will have to tax itself.
Longtime budget watcher Barbara Gilbert said the city has the process backwards. City revenue from property and utility taxes should pay for public safety, she said.
“Tax measures should be for special things—a youth center, the Brower Center [the environmental center being built downtown next to low-income housing],” she said.
Barbara Allen of BudgetWatch called for more money for public safety. Councilmember Wozniak, who has asked the council to consider giving an additional $1 million per year to the Berkeley police, did not speak at the hearing.
Kamlarz argued against those pressing for more city money for public safety. “We have more fire stations per square mile than any place around,” he said. “And we have more police, when you include UC Berkeley Police, than anywhere around.”
Kamlarz added that fire-fighting needs have changed over time: 87 percent of calls to the fire department are medical calls.
And there are other ways to increase public safety than hiring new police, such as neighborhood watch groups, he said.
One resident said the city was shooting itself in the foot by making money from parking meter fines, which, in the end, deter people from shopping in Berkeley. (Mayor Tom Bates has suggested raising meter fees and adding new meters where there are now none.)
While the city manager has proposed putting almost $1 million into the city’s beleaguered housing authority, which oversees subsidized housing, Gilbert said she’d be happy to see the oversight leave Berkeley and go to Alameda County, something the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has threatened if the city doesn’t improve the agency. “We’re creating a huge dependent population,” she said, arguing that people in Berkeley would rather pay for police than for affordable housing.
Kamlarz addressed the question of a need for more revenue. The city earns about 1 percent of the sales taxes people pay within the city. “When I talk to people in town, they don’t want retail,” Kamlarz said. “They all want to go to Target, but they don’t want a Target in town.”
One person raised the question of the high cost of department heads, all of whom make more than $100,000 per year plus about another $50,000 in benefits. Kamlarz talked about “holding down labor costs,” which could mean having employees pay more for their health benefits. This change would only come out of contract negotiations.
In some jurisdictions, such as the University of California, salary savings have been realized by giving the lowest-paid employees the highest percentage of a salary increase and the highest-paid, the lowest percentage.
Christopher Lien said the answer is to reduce staff and asked Kamlarz to suggest where that can be done. “We would like the ideas coming from you,” he said.
Those in attendance said the hearing should have been better publicized. “Everyone in the city should have gotten a notice,” Gilbert said. “I’m really disappointed.” She added that the city should be surveyed to see where people really want their money spent.
The city manager has made a number of budget proposals. Some are:
• $900,000 for deferred maintenance for city buildings and recreation facilities, including swimming pools, senior and recreation centers.
• $1 million for transportation planning.
• $2.86 million for streets and other transportation funding and $1 million for clean storm water/creeks planning.
• $306,000 for youth: $136,000 to fund 50 youth jobs and another $170,000 for youth recreation programs cut in earlier budgets.
• $66,000 for a full-time watershed coordinator, increasing a half-time position to full time.
• $947,000 over two years to subsidize the Berkeley Housing Authority; and $1.5 million to fund three low-income housing projects. (This $1.5 million is expected to be reimbursed to the general fund through future fees for condominium conversion.)
• $900,000 for public safety; $600,000 to keep all fire stations open (ending rotating closures) until December 2008 and $300,000 for training public safety dispatchers on new communications equipment.
City Councilmembers have made their own proposals, some of which include:
• $50,000 to study the feasibility of a youth center (Anderson, Moore)
• $65,000 to restore funding to the civic arts coordinator (Civic Arts Commission)
• $380,000 to expand the street-sweeping program (Public Works Commission)
• $200,000 for traffic calming in the Cedar/Rose/Hopkins/Gilman streets area (Maio)
• $50,000 for the Public Commons/street behavior initiative (Bates)
• $25,000 for a Panoramic Hill emergency access study (Wozniak)
• $15,000 for services for severely disabled children in West Berkeley (Spring, Moore)
• $85,000 for crisis Intervention training for police (Mental Health Commission)
• $1.2 million for community-involved policing (Worthington)
Call the City Clerk (981-6900) for the complete list of council referrals or look on line at the May 22 City Council agenda, supplement to Item 31.
• June 26 the council will vote on the budget.
The complete budget document is on line at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us, with a link on the city’s home page. The budget book can be purchased for $25 from the city clerk’s office.
The budget will be discussed at every City Council meeting in June:
• June 12, 5 p.m., City Council budget workshop.
• June 19, there will be a public hearing on the budget at the council meeting. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. The mayor will present his additions to the city manager’s budget at that time.