The Public Eye: Slouching Towards Vallejo

By Zelda Bronstein
Thursday May 29, 2008 - 10:01:00 AM

City of Berkeley decisionmakers would like us to believe that circumstances beyond their control have forced them to consider new tax and bond measures for the November ballot. At the council’s May 6 budget workshop, City Manager Phil Kamlarz and Budget Manager Tracy Vesely blamed Berkeley’s fiscal crisis on Prop. 13, the real estate downturn and Sacramento’s past and possible future raids on municipal treasuries, while praising the council for its wisdom and foresight. Councilmembers returned the compliment.  

Councilmember Wozniak thanked staff “for keeping the budget on an even keel.” “We can see that staff and council made many wise decisions,” said Councilmember Anderson. Now, said Mayor Bates, “we have to continue to be prudent.” 

Nobody on the dais marred this exercise in collective self-vindication by alluding to circumstances that city officials could have controlled but chose not to, like their obscene handouts to big developers. To cite only the most egregious example: In May 2005 the council secretly voted to have Berkeley taxpayers give the biggest developer in town, the University of California, a $12 million annual subsidy for campus use of city services—fire, police and sewers—for 15 years. 

Nor did city officials bring up their capitulation to the Berkeley’s public safety unions. “What if labor costs are not controlled?” asked Budget Manager Vesely, flagging the biggest threat to the the city’s tenuous fiscal stability. “We just settled contracts with police and fire,” she said, “but negotiations are still open” with non-sworn employees. The implication was that labor costs, which consume 80 percent of Berkeley’s general fund (non-earmarked monies), had been reined in by the new contracts. 

Consider, then, that in February, with no public deliberation whatsoever, the council okayed a 14 percent salary increase for Berkeley police. According to city Human Resources Director Dave Hodgkins, the police were already averaging $98,292 in salaries and $55,056 in annual benefits. 

The new contract with the firefighters, approved in November with virtually no public discussion, raised salaries by 13 percent, as well as increasing annual benefits. Berkeley firefighters were already averaging $101,436 in salaries and $47,496 in annual benefits. 

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that in 2007 over 20 percent (372) of Berkeley’s 1700 employees had salaries greater than $100,000, and that’s not counting benefits, which run about 50 percent of salaries. Seventy percent of those six-figure paychecks went to public safety officers. The top earner, Police Sergeant Howard Nonoguchi, took home $217,880. 


This is controlling labor costs? 

In fact, Berkeley City Hall is being run a lot like a jobs program for city workers. At the May 6 workshop, Budget Manager Vesely said that Berkeley balanced its budget between 2003 and 2006 by making $20 million in cuts, mainly by eliminating almost 150 positions from the city workforce. During the 2006 mayoral and council campaigns, we heard a lot about those cuts. What we didn’t hear was what Vesely further observed: The 150 positions that got the ax were almost all empty. “You could probably count on the fingers of one hand” the number of city employees who were actually laid off, she told the council. Her tone suggested that this should be regarded as a major achievement. 

And so it should—if you think the needs of city staff ought to come before those of the citizenry. Here’s a different view: Municipal budgets should reflect the purpose of democratic government, which is to benefit the general welfare. In deciding what to cut, the council and the city manager should have asked, what will best serve the public at large?—not how can we ensure that the maximum number of current staff stay on the city’s payroll? 

The prioritization of staff welfare partly reflects the larger community’s admirable solicitude for workers and the organizations that represent them. It’s one thing, however, to defend Berkeley Bowl employees’ right to organize a union or Berkeley Honda machinists’ right to fair treatment and quite another to advocate raises for city staffers whose salaries already average upwards of $98,000 a year. 

Indeed, the council’s commitment to working people is highly selective. As Dave Blake recently noted in these pages, Mayor Bates and his allies on the council refused to defend workers’ rights to join a union at the forthcoming West Berkeley Bowl, owned by the notoriously anti-union Glen Yasuda. 

The council’s deference to city unions, and above all to the unions representing the city’s police and firefighters, reflects something besides solicitude for workers’ rights: the electeds’ fear of losing their seats. Unlike the workers at Berkeley Honda or the Berkeley Bowl, Berkeley police and firefighters have lots of money and clout. Cross them, and come election time, they’ll pay you back by withholding their endorsements and flooding your constituents’ mailboxes and voicemails with claims that you’re soft on public safety. 

The fear-mongering has already begun, with the city’s blessing: The city-funded Berkeley voter survey conducted on May 13-15 asked whether respondents would “approve a new parcel tax of $90 per year on the average homeowner to prevent rotating fire station closures, enhance existing emergency medical service response, increase the number of stations that are staffed with paramedics, establish compatible emergency communication systems between public safety responders in the Bay Area and improve community disaster preparedness.” 

Initially 62 percent of the respondents said or leaned toward yes. When the questioner added that “[e]mergency medical responses account for two-thirds of service calls for the Fire Department, with the highest level of care and intervention delivered by a paramedic,” and that “currently paramedics are stationed at only three of the seven fire stations,” the yeas went up to 66 percent, verging on the two-thirds vote necessary to pass new taxes. 

At the council’s May 20 meeting, the pollster averred that the questioner’s additional remarks about the paramedics constituted “unbiased information” and “representative facts.” Representative of what? City officials’ desire to hide their pandering and recklessness from the public? Needless to say, survey respondents heard not a word about the firefighters’ (or police’s) recent raises, the city’s 15-year, $12 million annual subsidy of UC or any of the council’s other extravagances. 

It now seems likely that a Fire and Disaster Preparedness Tax on the November ballot, as well as a Pools Bond and a Library Seismic Safetey Bond, will appear on the ballot. Given the Bates administration’s contempt for public process and open government—aptly symbolized by the mayor’s privatization of his latest State of the City address—there’s no reason to expect that City Hall will supply voters with truly unbiased information about Berkeley’s money troubles. This year, as in 2004, when the four city tax measures on the ballot went down to defeat, the truth will have to come from the community.