Public Comment

No New Taxes Without Funding Essential Services First!

By Marie Bowman
Thursday October 30, 2008 - 09:57:00 AM

Once again the City is asking to tap further into our wallets instead of making the effort to manage its huge budget. Together with many of you, Berkeleyans Against Soaring Taxes (BASTA!), Berkeley Property Owners Association (BPOA), Telegraph Business Improvement District (TBID) and neighborhood groups are committed to responsible fiscal management. We urge “no” votes on ballot measures FF, GG & HH.  


Measure HH. Gann Tax Override 

Fortunately, state law does not allow special tax assessments to go on long after their “special” justification is gone.  

The City has multiple revenue streams to pay for essential services: county tax: $39 million; sales tax: $14.7 million; transfer tax: $12.5 million; utility users tax: $14.6 million. The list goes on … Economizing on just 5 percent of the City’s massive budget would make Measure HH unnecessary, and save the struggling taxpayer an average of $900 per year.  

Yes, we approved these taxes in the past, but we were deceived. As soon as we agreed to pay special taxes to improve streets, parks, EMT and other services, the City pulled back its general funds in these areas and spent the money elsewhere. By fooling us into paying “special” taxes for basic services, the City can divert our regular tax dollars to pet projects.  

Measure GG. Disaster Preparedness 

Fire protection is a crucial public service. This is so obvious that the City counts on voters to approve taxes without thinking further. But ask yourself why fire protection of all things is put at risk when the City spends far more money on lower-priority issues. The City cynically plays politics with your safety, meanwhile spending millions on developers; outside contractors, many of which provide ineffective services; increases in staffing levels and staff compensation (the average is $159,000).  

Scheduling mismanagement in the Fire Department costs millions in unnecessary overtime pay. Because of a whopping 37,000 hours of overtime, virtually all Berkeley’s firefighters were top earners, with 25 percent paid over $200,000 even before their latest 14 percent raise.  

There is no guarantee Measure GG funds will provide adequate emergency staffing. Council is planning on holding back $2.5 million of staff costs to purchase equipment. Once again we will see more overtime. Further, GG doesn’t stop the City from slashing the General Funds it now spends on fire and disaster services.  

Whenever the City wants more money, they threaten to undermine public safety. “Protecting stations from closure” is a bogus scare tactic; Berkeley hasn’t had ten stations since the 1950s!  

There are 8,400 medical emergency calls annually—less than one an hour to be shared by seven stations. Often the same incident generates multiple calls, so the actual medical emergency load is much less.  

In 2004 neighborhood associations like CENA, LeConte, NEBA, BANA, CNA, Willard urged a “no” vote on Measure M, a measure similar to GG. When Measure M lost, there were no rotating brownouts. The City funded the BFD with general funds (as they should!). This month Mayor Bates assured the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association that he will protect fire and disaster preparedness services.  


Measure FF. Bond for Renovation of Four Branch Libraries  

We love our libraries, but we need to make sure their proposals are financially sound and good for the community. Here’s what needs to be done:  

Get construction costs under control. Measure FF proposes to spend $980 per square foot for new construction and refurbished space, yet the average for California libraries is only $344. Berkeley’s projected costs are way out of line! 

Look for other sources of money. The City of Lafayette is only one quarter Berkeley’s size. For its library construction, Lafayette raised more than $24 million, without adding new taxes, from public grants, private foundations and voluntary donations. Hundreds of private foundations provide millions of dollars for library construction, and for operational costs (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie, AT&T, etc). If Lafayette can bring in outside funding for building and operating its library, why can’t Berkeley?  

Get contribution from the City of Berkeley. Other cities financially support their libraries.  

Bonds are not the way to go. Given the current credit crunch, it is extremely expensive to get funding for a bond. Many cities experiencing rising bond costs have decided it is better to wait before issuing new ones. Current economic conditions make it essential to reconsider: How much will this really cost?  

Accessibility. In the 1990s all public buildings were required to be made accessible by State law. The West Library received expanded accessibility upgrades in 2008. Berkeley’s library facilities are not in such a state that revisions can’t be made to the proposal.  

Four years ago, the City threatened financial chaos unless a slate of new tax measures passed. Voting No on the 2004 tax measures saved the average homeowner $700 per year, and the sky didn’t fall – in fact, the City experienced an $18 million surplus!  

The proposed 2008 tax and bond measures would cost the average taxpayer $1,000 per year, but combined they represent a miniscule 5 percent of the City’s budget. The City can economize that 5 percent. Vote No on Measures FF, GG & HH, and direct the Council to fund essential services first, and stop diverting our money to non-essential and wasteful projects.