California is insolvent and in every corner of every county and city we are feeling the pain. Draconian measures have been taken at all levels of civic governance to cut expenditures and boost falling revenues in order to balance budgets.
Yet you wouldn’t know this from Berkeley’s upbeat rhetoric. The Berkeley Voice featured Mayor Bates on front page saying “Berkeley’s Future is Rosy.” Channel 4 televised a Berkeley employee effusing, “We are fortunate to be better off than most thanks to our city officials.” The Chronicle reported, “Berkeley’s budget will actually grow. City leaders cite a number of factors, including their own decisions.”
This is all most self-congratulatory. But is Berkeley truly exempt from the budget ravages that plague the whole state? Or are Mayor Bates and City Manager Kamlarz just great PR people and masters of illusion? It would seem the latter.
On June 23 the Berkeley City Council unanimously passed a new biennial budget. While this budget reflects the agenda of the mayor, it is not a fair one for our citizens. Consider this:
• For new revenue the budget relies on increased taxes and fees, a steep reduction of services and infrastructure spending, and debilitating cuts to social service programs.
• The adopted budget funds at 100 percent the cost of city employees’ salary, health and retirement benefits packages (including an 8 percent raise recently granted the city manager).
Berkeley voters continue to tax themselves at among the highest levels in the state. Mayor Bates admits, “Voters have been very generous.” Others say, however, that Berkeley voters have been mislead, duped and fleeced by City Hall.
A typical example: Last November Measure GG was put on the ballot by the City Council. It was hyped as critical for keeping our fire stations open. It was passed. What voters were not told is that funding for fire protection normally comes from the general fund and not from a bond measure. What a windfall for City Hall to get taxpayers to pony up property taxes to alleviate the strain on general fund expenditures. And what have they done with the freed-up money? Well, it helps finance city employee compensation packages. Would Measure GG have passed if the electorate had known it was taking on more tax liability, not to ensure fire protection services but rather to pay for gold-plated city employee compensation packages? It is doubtful.
We can not sustain a situation where, as the San Francisco Chronicle points out, “The average cost of city employees is roughly $125,000 per employee including benefits while those in the private sector earn an average pay of $75,900 including benefits.” In sum, city employees make nearly twice as much as the people who pay them.
Unlike Berkeley, most other public entities have faced up to this fact and are doing something about it. The majority have concluded “share-the-pain” concessions from labor or at the very least have begun negotiating to do so:
“The State of California votes to slash employee pay by 18 percent.”
“Contra Costa workers agree to major contract concessions in cost-saving agreement and new employees will no longer receive lifetime retiree health care benefits.”
“86.4 percent of union voters in San Francisco agree to concessions and many will be laid off.”
“Most of Oakland’s unions and the mayor agree to a 10 percent cut in compensation.”
Now contrast those headlines with Berkeley City Hall’s recent announcement, and scratch your head:
“Berkeley City Council approves a budget and proudly says there will be no layoffs and no union contracts singled out.”
In the play Hamlet Shakespeare wrote “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” It was and tragedy ensued. Well, something is surely not right in the “state” of Berkeley.
If you are one of the 52,000 people who vote in Berkeley, then make your voice heard. Demand that your elected representatives earn your vote by making your interests their first priority. Insist they balance our city budget, not by taxing more but by reducing city employee costs. Contact them, voice your opinion in the news media, or simply dialogue with your neighbors. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Victoria Peirotes is a Berkeley resident.