Drivers will pay more for parking violations and homeowners and businessmen will pay more in property taxes under a final 2003-2004 budget passed by City Council Wednesday night.
Council approved the $280 million budget on a 7-1 vote, with one abstention, after five months of meetings and public hearings. The city closed a $9 million deficit with a selective hiring freeze, cuts to administration and social services, and increases in various fees and taxes.
“It’s been a difficult process, but I think we’ve got a very good budget,” said Mayor Tom Bates.
Starting July 1, the fine for an expired meter will jump from $23 to $30, and drivers will pay $51 for parking in a red curb or tow-away zone, up from the current $34.
Next year, the average homeowner will pay $118 more in property taxes to fund parks, sewers, libraries and other city services. The largest portion of the increase will cover library services, with the average homeowner paying $30 more per year and the average business owner forking over $238 more annually.
Victor Bull, owner of Thunderware, a high tech company in West Berkeley that recently shut its doors, showed up at the council meeting Tuesday night to object to the 13.9 percent jump in library taxes.
“I love libraries and I love to support them, but it’s becoming a back-breaking situation for me,” said Bull, who said he still pays $10,000 in property taxes on his West Berkeley building, even though his business has closed. “We are not a bottomless pit of revenue.”
But councilmembers said raising property taxes and fines was necessary to save vital city services.
“Without [those services], we just won’t have the kind of city we want to live in,” said councilmember Linda Maio.
The council, concerned about further cuts from the state, also adopted a $3.66 million contingency plan that would chop youth and senior services and let the assistant fire chief go, if necessary.
The budget picture only promises to get worse in 2004-2005, when the city will face a projected $8 to $10 million deficit. An initial list of possible cuts, prepared by the city manager’s office, includes heavy reductions in police and fire, which largely avoided the budget axe this year.
Bates, elected in November, presided over a largely civil budget process this year. The measured debate differed sharply from the brutal spending fights of recent years that pitted a slim “progressive” majority against the “moderates” led by former Mayor Shirley Dean.
But the new mayor, who now heads a 6-3 progressive majority, did not avoid controversy altogether. On Tuesday night, moderate Councilmembers Betty Olds and Miriam Hawley and progressive Councilmember Maudelle Shirek raised concerns about $685,000 in last-minute spending put forth by Bates and ultimately approved by the council.
“I think it was a backroom deal,” said Olds, the lone vote against the budget.
Olds said the mayor should have consulted with a series of citizen commissions — concerned with a variety of issues, such as the arts and homelessness—which normally review budget proposals and make recommendations before the council votes.
But Bates said the recent emergence of $800,000 in new revenue did not allow time to confer with the commissions on the new spending, which focused on the arts, health programs, homeless services and youth activities.
Bates cobbled together the spending package over the course of the last two weeks when it became clear that the council was willing to raise parking fines by more than the 30 percent originally recommended by City Manager Weldon Rucker.
Rucker’s plan would have yielded $2 million in new revenue. But the parking ticket schedule ultimately passed by council Tuesday night, which raised some fines by 30 percent and others by 50 percent, is expected to generate $2.8 million for the city —providing the council with an $800,000 windfall, on top of $115,000 in other unallocated funds.
With $915,000 to play with, Bates allocated about $685,000 to new spending and set aside a $230,000 reserve in anticipation of further cuts from the state.
The package included several recommendations made by other councilmembers, but also highlighted the mayor’s priorities. Bates, who focused heavily on education and youth services in his campaign, earmarked $70,000 for a new program, Berkeley Champions for Kids, that would recruit volunteers for libraries, recreation centers and after-school programs.
Moderate councilmember Miriam Hawley, who had concerns about circumventing the commissions, nonetheless praised Bates for putting together an even-handed spending package that weighed all the councilmembers’ priorities.
“He looked at them all and everybody was a winner on some things and a loser on others,” she said.
But Sherry Smith, an aide to Hawley and an Olds appointee to the Civic Arts Commission, said the arts groups that benefited from the last-minute spending package had an unfair advantage over the organizations that competed for city funds before the commission at the start of the budget process.
“We think these organizations are fine, splendid organizations, and worthy of city support,” Smith said. “But 68 other arts organizations have played by the rules.”
Bates noted that the new spending plan includes a provision allowing the city manager and commissions to review the package over the next 60 days and make recommendations to the council for changes.
But Smith said the weight of the existing City Council vote will make it politically impossible for the commissions to recommend taking money away from projects like Totland, a children’s play center near downtown Berkeley, which received $25,000 in the new plan.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we had 100 tots show up at the meeting,” she said.
“There is a certain amount of truth [in that argument],” Bates said.
But the mayor said the commissions are “independent” entities that won’t be afraid to recommend adjustments and added that he council will be “open-minded” about any proposed funding shifts.
The other major budget controversy in recent weeks was the library tax. The public library had pushed for a 36 percent hike, but the city’s legal office determined that 13.9 percent was the maximum allowable increase under the law.
Councilmembers, citing the legal opinion, went for the 13.9 percent jump.
“I think it’s what we can do now,” said Maio.
Jorge Garcia, of the Berkeley Board of Library Trustees, said he understood the city’s position and could accept the 13.9 percent increase, which is significantly higher than the 4 percent increase originally proposed by Rucker.
“It’s better than the worst case scenario and worse than the best case scemario,” said Garcia.
Garcia said it is too early to say how library services may be affected next year, but cautioned that the 13.9 percent increase, expected to generate $1.3 million in new revenue, may not be enough to prevent a reduction in services for the cash-strapped library.
The city’s $9 million 2003-2004 deficit included a $4.7 million shortfall in the general fund and a $4.3 million hole in the city’s other funds.