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Council Debates Budget: Streets vs. Services

The council adopted its $319 million budget Tuesday night, with debate over whether $105,000 should be allocated to streets or community services.

The hot point at Tuesday night’s council meeting on Berkeley’s budget boiled down to a skirmish over $105,000 out of a $319 million city budget. Mayor Tom Bates and his five council allies — Councilmembers Linda Maio, Darryl Moore, Laurie Capitelli, Susan Wengraf and Gordon Wozniak — voted to spend the funds where they were originally allocated: repairing the city’s aged sewers and deteriorating streets.

Councilmembers Jesse Arreguin, Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson called for reallocation of a small portion of the city’s budget from streets and sewers to community services.

“Our budget is a reflection of our priorities – what we believe in as a city,” Anderson said, arguing that the funds he was requesting would “patch together people’s lives... [and] keep our safety net intact.”

Arreguin supported Anderson, arguing that “$105,000 out of [the street repair] budget of $2.7 million is not significant.” He added, “There are still significant funds left over for street repair.”

Calling the mayor’s budget proposals “totally unacceptable,” Worthington pointed specifically to the  blind services, which he said were the “only programs that focus on Berkeley’s blind community." Anderson’s budget allocated $20,000 to these services, while the Bates budget called for $10,000.

“It would be foolhardy to chop this in half,” Worthington said, offering to take the $105,000 in street repairs from those scheduled for his district. The council majority turned down this proposal.

“Let’s not rob Peter to pay Paul,” Wozniak said.

Spending the funds on streets won the day. Capitelli pointed out that “the storm drains and streets are in decrepit condition” and that it’s difficult to cross Milvia Street in a wheelchair due to the poor condition of the street.

“I’m concerned about reducing funds for street maintenance,” Moore agreed, noting the need for paving on Sacramento Street in his district. “I’m concerned about bicyclists,” he said.

Cutting Costs

Most of the city budget is allocated to staff city functions – police, fire, parks and recreation, planning, health, community services and more. Budget discussions began in September, with the city manager presenting a $319 million budget with a $12 million deficit. The manager wiped out the deficit through several actions. One is the elimination of around 80 positions – some filled and some vacant -- over the next two years.

The health department will lose about 20 positions over two years, but Health Services Director Beth Meyerson that the department will be reorganized so that most clients will continue to be served.

For example, the at University Avenue and Sixth Street will be open fewer days and will no longer give most immunizations. Nonetheless, she said all the patients it serves will have medical care, either at the clinic itself or nearby.

“We’ll make sure everyone has a medical home,” where low-income patients can get medical care in Berkeley, Meyerson said.

Positions will also be cut in Public Works, where most of the city’s garbage trucks will convert from two-person to one-person trucks.

Councilmembers praised the city’s 525 secretarial and maintenance staff — members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1021 — who agreed to reopen their contract. The re-negotiations saved Berkeley around $400,000, with SEIU members accepting lesser increases in cost of living raises (2 or 3 percent, rather than 4 percent) than originally negotiated, and accepting a two-tier pension system, whereby new employees would receive somewhat lower benefits at retirement than current employees. The agreement carried with it guarantees that no more than seven sanitary worker positions would be cut. The city manager had originally proposed elimination of 15 Public Works staff.

However, Barbara Gilbert, from Berkeley Budget SOS, argued before the council that the city had made a “sweetheart deal” with SEIU that includes “excessive compensation” and overtime. Gilbert added that the city wrongly agreed to limit Public Works employee layoffs.

“All over California and the nation, public employees are taking substantial wage cuts and commencing substantial contributions for their many valuable benefits,” Gilbert said, reading a written statement to the countil. “This contract is not an example of such serious reform.”

Setting Priorities

During the debate over the allocation of the $105,000, councilmembers in support of the mayor’s proposal pointed out that the city gives some $6.6 million to community agencies that provide services to Berkeley residents. Most of these services are targeted to lower income people and include services for homeless people, the unemployed, seniors and the mentally ill.

But Anderson, Arreguin and Worthington pointed out that these agencies were also suffering from state and federal cutbacks as well as a decrease in private donations. Some of the specific differences between the Anderson and Bates budgets were the funding of ’s vocational program in landscaping ($30,000 in Bates’ budget; $50,000 in Anderson’s); the Black Infant Health Program (zero in Bates’ budget; $14,000 in Anderson’s); acupuncture for drug detox services ($21,700 in Bates’ budget; $40,000 in Anderson’s); and studies on rebuilding the swimming pools (zero in Bates’ budget; $40,000 in Anderson’s).

While the mayor’s original budget had allocated no funds to Berkeley’s Stonewall and Cinco de Mayo festivals, the mayor added $5,000 for Stonewall and $4,000 for Cinco de Mayo in the final budget allocation at Moore’s request.

Zero funding for a pools study disappointed advocates who had wanted more information on the best use of therapeutic warm pools – including revenue-generating activities -- and a cost analysis to support a November 2012 bond measure for the pools.

In June 2010, a bond measure to upgrade the , and pools and to rebuild got 62.2 percent of the vote, failing to garner the necessary two-thirds for it to pass.  

In support of his vote against the allocation for the pools study, Wozniak pointed out that Albany is building two swimming pools on the Berkeley border. Willard Pool in South Berkeley was shut down a year ago and the therapeutic warm pool at Berkeley High will be demolished in December.

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