Public Comment

Berkeley Needs Fiscal Responsibility

By Barbara Gilbert
Thursday May 22, 2008 - 10:08:00 AM

At a time when Berkeley residents are economically very insecure, and homeowners are extremely worried about the impact of declining home values and retirement assets, the city of Berkeley is proposing to increase local real property taxation. It will also be asking voters to re-authorize several special taxes previously approved. 

Revenue generated by local taxes and any increases thereto essentially funds city employee compensation. Almost all of the city’s $143 million General Fund is allocated to employee compensation as is approximately 80 percent of the city’s Total Funds annual budget of $315 million. In 2004 the city had the highest ratio of employees to residents in the State of California and this has likely not changed for the better. There are approximately 1,700 budgeted city employees. As Berkeleyans probably know by now, city employees have almost complete job security, excellent working conditions, a guaranteed retirement benefit of almost 100 percent of last salary, and heavily subsidized health insurance during employment and retirement. 

The city of Berkeley recently signed new labor contracts increasing employee compensation by about 15 percent over three to four years.  

Did you know that on top of salary, the city spends on average almost 55 percent additional on the employee’s benefits? 

The standard justification in the past for the superb benefit system enjoyed by public employees has been that they are paid less than others. However, recent disclosures required under “sunshine” regulations reveal the shockingly high number of Berkeley public employees making substantially more than $100,000 in salary alone, and this was in 2007 prior to the new contracts.  

A Google search for “City of Berkeley top earners” will take readers to this data. 

About 25 percent (371) city employees were in this high-earner category for 2007. Most of these high earners (75 percent or 282 employees) are in the police or fire departments. Considering that these two departments combined have about 450 employees, this means that almost 65 percent of public safety employees are in the top earner category. They keep company there mainly with the city manager, department heads, city attorneys, and a few other positions requiring special skills and/or managerial responsibility. The extremely high gross pay for public safety employees is largely attributable to overtime. Despite substantial effort every year, the city has been unable to curb expensive overtime costs. The city’s top 2007 earner in gross pay was a police sergeant earning $217,800. With $63,659 in benefits (55 percent of base salary of $115,744), this sergeant’s total compensation was about $282,000. In all, 55 public safety employees grossed at least $150,000 in pay along with about $60,000 in additional nonsalary compensation. 

Please also note that in addition to the top earners (over $100,000 in gross pay), there are many additional city employees just under the $100,000 salary mark, and not included in this top earner list, whose total compensation (with benefits) is about $150,000.  

Even though the proposed new Berkeley taxes will be appealingly framed to support worthy services (police, fire, library), you need to know that it all goes into one big kitty to fund all city employees. And while I consider myself a strong supporter of quality public safety services, I do feel that the compensation levels for these services are veering out of control. We do not want to end up like Vallejo and declare municipal bankruptcy. Berkeley needs to cut back on nonessential services and employees and to take a much stronger managerial role with respect to essential police and fire services. 

Consider voting no on all new taxes and even consider a NO vote on the re-authorization of previously-approved new taxes. This is the only way to force fiscal responsibility on our city government and preserve Berkeley as a livable community for middle income families. 


Barbara Gilbert lives in Berkeley’s District 5.