The Berkeley City Council heard from the heads of all of the city's public service departments during Tuesday evening's work session on the citywide work plan. Heads of the Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront, Police, Fire, Health Services, Public works, and other departments came forward and gave brief presentations regarding their department's significance, needs, and what they are doing to increase efficiency amidst budget difficulties. This was the first in a series of work sessions to occur in the next six months in the process of coming up with a budget for Fiscal Years 2012 and 2013. In the interest of time, the council struggled to hold their questions throughout this work session, but they will have the chance to give feedback on the work plan in December.
Dealing with dwindling funding for staff and resources, all of the departments highlighted their attempts to reduce costs while maintaining public services. While departments are still looking at expanding and making improvements in their field, many specialized programs are faced with threats of loss of funding. The funding for Heart 2 Heart, a program that works within low-income communities affected by heart disease to help people make healthy choices, is ending on June 30, 2011. The funding comes from Kaiser Permanente, which is looking at cutting back on community projects.
Bob Hicks, director of the Finance Department, discussed ways that the City can improve collection on taxes and increase recurring revenue to ease budget problems. Overall, Berkeley seems to be faring somewhat better than many other American cities in terms of public services, partly because Berkeley residents have a higher-than-average level of income. Still, hiring freezes and furloughs have been put in place, and although no layoffs have occurred yet, some are scheduled for March and April.
After a ten-minute break, the Council reconvened for the regular meeting. Among the ceremonial matters was the recognition of the Rotary Club for World Polio Day, as well as the declaration of October 26, 2010 to be Salma Arastu Day. Salma Arastu is a local folk artist, miniature artist, and Arabic calligrapher.
Councilmember Worthington advertised the upcoming memorial service for Pat Cody, local feminist, health activist, book store owner, author, and more. The service is going to be held this Saturday at 2:00 pm at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley at 2345 Channing Way.
Public commentators included Mary Ann Thomas of World Can't Wait, a man with a green mustache speaking in opposition to Measure R, and Donald Dean Carlson, a developer who wants to set up a bank for the city of Berkeley. A Beverages and More employee attended the meeting to speak to an item supporting just treatment of BevMo employees, who are trying to negotiate the restoration of work hours and benefits with their employer. There will be a rally this Friday in Jack London Square at 5:00 in support of BevMo workers.
One item that was briefly addressed during the meeting was Councilmember Worthington's recommendation to send a letter to McDonald's urging it to require that its suppliers use a less violent method of slaughtering chickens. The item was sent to the Humane Commission for review and recommendation of additional action. Councilmember Capitelli, noting that the letter would probably go straight into someone's recycling bin, suggested that the Council also urge residents to boycott McDonald's.
The Council unanimously passed Worthington's recommendation to send a letter in support of Asahbir Basi. Basi is a practicing Sikh who wears a turban, and the victim of a hate crime on September 11, 2010 where the word “terrorist” was scrawled across the door to his home. The letter to Mr. Basi notes several other hate crimes that have occurred in Berkeley in recent years.
Councilmember Capitelli recommended that an information report on the decline in taxable retail sales be moved to Consent Calendar, and an hour's worth of unplanned discussion ensued. A report from the Office of Economic Development addressed the problem of Berkeley's loss of sales tax revenue to regional competition and Internet shopping. Berkeley attracts shoppers to its specialty grocery stores and restaurants, but loses out when it comes to products like electronics and large appliances, for which people most often go to Emeryville or Oakland. The lack of sales tax on Internet retail has caused a lot of online shopping to take the place of local, taxable shopping. The City saw a decline of $1.2 million in sales tax during the last four quarters.
Another problem highlighted was the effort to fill vacant storefronts and the problem of the expensive, difficult permit process that businesses must go through to open shop. An example was cited where a woman who wanted to open an ice cream shop on Solano Avenue had to pay $9,200 to get a permit quickly enough to start her business by the time she started making lease payments. The difficult permit process is a product of the City's attempt to regulate the business environment. As Councilmember Anderson put it, “it looks like there's common sense and rationality on the one side and regimentation on the other side.” Councilmember Worthington noted that the permit process had been improved for the Telegraph and downtown areas, and that those areas were doing comparatively well.
After agreeing that this issue was going to be revisited during the quarterly Economic Development work session in December, the council moved on to the recommendation to increase parking citation fees by five dollars. An increase in such fines, several councilmembers pointed out, disproportionately becomes a burden on lower-income people who have difficulties registering their vehicles because of outstanding fines. The hike is a response to the State taking an extra three dollars from each parking citation issued. Mayor Bates complained that the implementation of this extra fee is a result of the State's Republican fiscal policy that passes the taxing on to the Cities. “The right wing Republicans say we're not going to vote for any taxes, they did, they passed it on and gave it to us, we're the villains, they are not.” Councilmember Wozniak pointed out that the State's policy of passing the costs on to the Cities may be an ongoing trend, and that the City should protest the policy in some way. Mayor Bates (who is married to State Senator Loni Hancock) agreed, saying, “I'm going to go home and take a sign and walk around my house.”
Eventually, the council voted in support of a three-dollar fine increase to compensate for the money being taken by the state. Mayor Bates and Councilmember Wozniak were the only votes against the increase.