Recent headlines: “Berkeley Tackles $14.6 Million Budget Deficit”. Some may recall that ten months ago Mayor Bates was featured, in color, front page-and-center, in the Berkeley Voice, saying “The Future is Rosy for Berkeley.” Now “Rosy-the-Rivet-You” sings a different Looney-Tune. What a difference a year makes!
While Bates was patting himself and his cohort city manager on the back a number of Berkeley residents had reservations. One didn’t need to be a rocket scientist. One only needed to follow non-stop coverage in national and local media regarding the financial crisis rocking the country, the state and neighboring communities.
In July 2009, a coalition of 150+ Berkeley residents directed a petition to Mayor Bates and council. The petition urged directing the city manager to explore pro-active measures to modestly reduce the cost to the City Treasury of our 1600 + public employees by 12%, or approximately $25 million. Already most other municipalities had fashioned and begun implementing strategies to contain these tax-payer funded, pandemic costs.
Petition endorsers were rebuffed by the mayor and largely ignored by council members. Had the Mayor and Council acted on citizens’ advice the $14.6 million budget deficit that is now a “fait accompli” would not exist.
In January 2010, a letter to the mayor and council reminded that the public expected a report on the real budget problem, the outlays and unfunded liabilities for city employees. The letter implored council (1) to authorize an independent audit of the City’s short and long-term obligations, (2) to make this information available to the public, and (3) to hire a professional labor negotiator in lieu of relying on the city manager, to deal with the Police/Fire Department contracts that are before the City in May 2010.
Fast-forward to May 2010. Mr. Kamlarz, the City Manager, announced Berkeley’s budget shortfall and will present a two-year rescue blueprint for the city. From released plan outlines it appears he will again recommend increased taxes and to further reduce city services. These so-called fixes target taxpayers and programs taxpayers overwhelmingly support, such as Senior Centers, Public Health Clinics, the Animal Shelter, and swimming pools, to mention a few. It does nothing to broach the subject or propose remedies for the financial stranglehold that he, and his fellow city employees have on the city, nor the detriment this stranglehold has on the programs most citizens endorse.
This strategy from Mr. Kamlarz is understandable. For years he has been Berkeley’s budget architect. In that capacity he has engineered benefits for city employees that far exceed anything comparable in any public or private sector. And he is personally the biggest beneficiary of Berkeley’s largesse. Indeed, he is the poster-child for how public servants profiteer.
Consider the 04/05/2009 article in the Contra Costa Times by Daniel Borenstein: “If you want an example of public employee pensions mushrooming out of control, consider the case of Berkeley City Manager Phil Kamlarz … he is now set up to earn more each year in retirement than the governor of California is entitled to annually while on the job.”
What is less understandable is why the mayor and eight elected city council members blindly follow the city manager’s lead or why they refuse to exercise a modicum of oversight or to direct public policy. Is it too much to ask that council serve the best interests of the city, rather than those of city employees?
An article, “Class War: How Public Servants Became Our Masters”, Feb 2010, explains:
“Although Americans may have a vague sense that the nation has run up a great deal of debt, the public employee benefit problem is not well known. The wave of benefit promises is poised to wash away state and local government budgets and large portions of the incomes of most Americans. Most of these benefits are vested, meaning that they have the standing of a legal contract”.
The article goes on to say:
“Local governments may have to triple their annual pension contributions during the next six years. That money will come from taxpayers such that they will have to work longer, retire later, and pay more so that their public-employee neighbors can enjoy the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.”
Consider a few basic facts:
(1) A monumental 78% of Berkeley’s current budget is consecrated to our “public employees”. This % will rise significantly in 2011 and beyond when unfunded debt to city employee pension and “Cadillac” health plans becomes due.
(2) Berkeley has a population of about 105,000 people; it has a disproportionate 1,600 + city employees, many of whom are not Berkeley residents, including City Manager Mr. Kamlarz, a city employee for 35 years who continues to reside in Oakland.
(3) The SF Chronicle reports: City employees receive about $128,000 in salary and benefit packages while the average taxpayer who funds them draws on only $82,000. USAToday reports: Salaries for 80% of public employee positions exceed comparable salaries in the private sector.
(4) The State, UC, UCSF, EBMUD, BART, and municipalities, including LA, SF, San Jose and Oakland, have conducted independent audits to assess short and long-term liabilities. These assessments have informed civic leaders and the public such that “action plans” have been developed. For example, theSF Chronicle reports “Charter amendment would revamp S.F. pensions”, “City employees fired and then (mostly) rehired” and “Cal seen as bloated, wasteful, and sluggish; simplified purchases, layoffs recommended”.
(5) Mayor Bates and council stubbornly continue to rely on the skewed and selective reporting of the city manager to appreciate the city’s long-term debt and liabilities, and entirely on him to craft the budget.
This question goes begging: In Berkeley, do public employees exist to serve the public or does the public exist to serve employees? Our city governance appears to support wholeheartedly the latter.
It seems the wolves, in politically-crafted sheep clothing, have taken over the hen-house. They feather their lairs while robbing the cluckers (make that “suckers”) of their small nest-eggs. And yes, as you can gather, I am an unhappy hen!
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Victoria Peirotes is a Berkeley resident.