Some of the scale of the budget difficulties face by the City of Berkeley was painted graphically at a special session of the City Council last night. The city faces a deficit of $3 million in its general fund and $9.5 million in its special funds that could require the elimination of 96 positions over the next two years.

“These are tough decisions and they don’t come easily,” said City Manager Phil Kamlarz, introducing the discussion. City Budget Manager Teresa Berkeley-Simmons described the pressure on the city from shrinking state and federal budgets as “staggering”.

Berkeley-Simmons presented balancing measures that call for eliminating 60 positions in fiscal year 2012 and a further 36 position in FY2013 (see chart). Fifty of those position are currently filled; the remainder are vacant positions that will not be filled. The bulk of cuts in the plan fall on health services and housing, where 17 filled positions as well as a further 17 vacant positions would be cut in FT2012. In FY2013, the bulk of the cuts outlined fall on public works, largely through a plan to move much of the refuse service to one-person trucks.

Police chief Michael Meehan discussed the impact of reducing sworn officer numbers by five in each of the next two years and similar reductions in the police department’s professional staff. Meehan pointed out that 92% of the poice budget goes to personnel costs.

Housing and community services director Jane Micallef and health services director Beth Myerson outlined the service cuts that could be expected in their departments with the staff reductions. Micallef said the city’s weatherization program would be eliminated, administration would be restructured and aging services would be reorganized, including ending the West Berkeley Senior Center’s role as a daily center. Myerson discussed reductions in high intensity supports in mental health, cutting back the opening days for the public health clinic, and limiting communicable disease controls to the highest-risk diseases.

As difficult as these cuts seem, Berkeley-Simmons and Kamlarz stressed that they were presenting the best possible scenario for the city. It assumes state cuts don’t increase beyond Governor Jerry Brown’s current proposals, but the mooted June ballot measure to extend taxes remains in the political balance. Further, in areas such as housing where the city receives federal funding, the assumption is that President Barack Obama’s cuts — of 7.5% on community block grants, for example — will prevail rather than the 62% cut proposed by Republicans in the House of Representatives.

Kamlarz said that depending on what happens at the state and federal level, the final budget proposals presented to the council on May 3 might be very different.

“You’re trying to inoculate us slowly rather than bringing the worst possible scenario,” said Councilmember Laurie Capitelli. “I hope the situation doesn’t get grimmer.”

Capitelli and other councilmembers said that they hoped there were ways to generate savings without having to resort to layoffs in the city. The number of city employees has already been reduced by 130 between FY2009 and this year.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington stressed the importance of city management working cooperatively with employees and the unions to resolve the budget problems. He suggested that in future budget presentations, union and employees should sit at the “front table” together — “it’s a statement of respect and inclusion”, he said to applause.

“We really need to strengthen that partnership,” Worthington said. “The reality is the public is going to suffer and the employees are going to suffer. Figuring out a fair way to balance this is going to be critical.”

Councilmember Linda Maio also emphasized the importance of cooperation between management and employees in solving the budget.

“I don’t want to issue a layoff notice to one single family, one single person,” Maio said. “We have to have you work with us. We need good negotations. We’re in this together.”

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak echoed the desire to minimize or eliminate mandatory layoffs. He suggested a salary freeze in the city on top of the hiring freeze and a cap on termination payouts. He also thought healthcare costs could be an area for targeting.

“Berkeley has some very generous plans with no deductibles and no premiums and we have to look at what we could save by doing things like that,” Wozniak said.

Mayor Tom Bates said the one consolation in the bleak budget picture was the amount of time available for discussing and arriving at solutions before the planned June passage of the budget.

“These things are not sustainable,” he said, citing pension and healthcare costs. “It’s not going to be nice, it’s not going to be pleasant, it’s not going to be fun.”

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...