In a media campaign two years ago Mayor Bates told us, “The future of Berkeley is rosy”. He proceeded to “spike” the City Manager’s salary, advocating “…because he, like me, could make more in retirement than on the job.” That inadvertent admission was true and telling. What was inaccurate is that the future of Berkeley wasn’t rosy then and most certainly isn’t now.
It is well chronicled that The State, UC and all municipalities have dire fiscal problems which all have been grappling with for the past 3 years. Less advertised is that Berkeley, one of the highest taxed cities anywhere, is also in a pickle. Neighboring constituencies have assessed revenue vs. expenditures, solicited public input, and are debating options for meaningful reform. Berkeley is a blind and flagrant exception and Berkeley’s Mayor and Council are MIAs in this universal debate.
Despite petty bickering this long-seated council has been unified in supporting policies that pit the extreme well-being of city employees over the modest well-being of the city-at-large. And council has consistently come down in favor of largesse for employees over meager benefits for citizens.
How so? This council, led by a double-dipping Mayor, has systemically resisted comprehensive reporting and auditing of City finances and been less than forthcoming about the City’s exponentially increasing liabilities and the back-breaking, long-term debt council has accrued on the public’s behalf.
Suze Orman says, “Show me the money and I’ll show you where the problem is”. The short answer for Berkeley is “the money” and our untold escalating debt is primarily in the deep pockets of city employees, including some council members. Over 80% of Berkeley’s General Fund and up to $750 million of accumulated and deferred debt (including long-term infrastructure maintenance and repair put-offs) is ear-marked for employee salaries, their overtime, uncapped vacation and sick leave, and to exorbitant, double-dipping health care and pension benefits, the like of which not a single taxpayer among us has.
In January investigative reporter Daniel Borenstein from the Contra Costa Times revealed that “Berkeley benefit debt [to employees] is at least $310 million and may be as much as $200 million more.” He wrote, “The biggest factors driving the debt are the city’s unfunded liability for a pension plan that allows some workers to collect more in retirement than on the job…the City Manager being one of these.” He noted that pension debt [alone] amounts to $3,000 for every of Berkeley’s 105,000 residents and could be as much as $5,000.
How egregious are the benefits handed out by council to our “civil servants”? Consider our City Manager, Mr. Phil Kamlarz, as emblematic. He will soon draw down a pension of over $325,000/year for life all “owed” as future debt by Berkeley taxpayers. By comparison, the Governor of California and managers of larger constituencies, such as SF, San Jose, Oakland, etc. are all grossly “under-paid”. And will Mr. Kamlarz be relying on Medicare, like most Berkeley taxpayers? No. City residents will also be paying for his Cadillac health care benefits for the rest of his life and ours.
So what can we conclude?
(1) Our elected representatives have put the, “extreme well-being” of our 1,580 public employees over and above that of the “simple well-being” of our 105,000 taxpayers and residents.
(2) The proposed budget is entirely fabricated by a City manager with special and personal interests, and then endorsed by council
(3) Council has done nothing to establish mechanisms to assess, acknowledge, or communicate the true nature and amplitude of Berkeley’s finances to the public, nor are they proposing solutions that are acceptable to the public.
Our mayor and Council may mount a campaign to convince us that the future for Berkeley is still rosy but just not as rosy as before. My suggestion: Berkeley should wake up and smell, not the roses, but the hemlock.
Victoria Peirotes is a Berkeley resident, retired architect and ad hoc member of BerkeleyBudget SOS who can be reached at BerkeleybudgetSOS@gmail.com.