Another Berkeley is possible
Imagine Berkeley ten years from now in 2025 — a city with the best roads, schools, pools, libraries, senior centers, civic infrastructure and extraordinary social services. The economy is booming. The city economy is booming with a thriving tech sector, powered largely by UC graduates who now have every reason to stay in Berkeley after graduation because, not only are there plenty of high-paying jobs here, but the quality of life is truly incredible.
The city is a beacon of sustainability, full of parks, green buildings, solar panels, windmills, permeable roads, and other latest green tech. We generate far more electricity than we use and our bike and pedestrian infrastructure is truly the best on this planet. Carbon emissions have been radically cut across the board and most food consumed is now organic and locally grown.
There are no homeless people on our streets because we now have the most robust and effective social services in the country, yet the big surprise to everyone who visits Berkeley is that the local taxes are the lowest in the region, because we have also instituted sound fiscal policies and now have a balanced budget as a result. By acknowledging that pro-active governance saves money, we’ve dramatically cut costs while providing extraordinary value to the taxpayers.
Yet it wasn’t always like this. Just a few years ago, in 2015, the City of Berkeley was in a free-fall crisis as employee obligations and pension payments forced the City to dramatically cut back taxpayer services, delaying critically necessary maintenance and forcing much of our public infrastructure into a state of disrepair and decay leading to inevitable shutdowns.
Decades of inept management and corruption led the City into making endless promises to City employees that would have to be paid by the future generations, while demographic changes dramatically shifted the political climate. It turned out that the people moving to Berkeley had no intention whatsoever in paying for the mistakes of the past generations.
How we created a different, healthy, sustainable city
The combination of the crisis and the demographic changes created the perfect opportunity for major, disruptive, innovative radical change, delivered through a series of three ballot measures that the taxpayers overwhelmingly approved:
Ballot Measure #1: Established the Berkeley Taxpayer Accountability District redirecting all tax revenues from the City to the District, thus forcing the City to file bankruptcy and dissolve.
The newly-formed Berkeley Taxpayer Accountability District became the new government entity responsible for delivering services to the taxpayers. It took over all the income streams that previously went to the City while assuming none of the past toxic obligations. All previous employees and contractors were also strictly barred from receiving any payments from the new District. It was a completely fresh start.
By removing income streams from the City, this measure left CalPERS and other past City creditors scrambling over the literally-crumbling City assets, which the taxpayers gladly handed over to them through a Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy of the City, eventually dissolving the City itself, leaving all the past debts and obligations behind, and creating a truly clean new start.
Ballot Measure #2: Established a responsible governance structure, fiduciary duty, term and compensation limits for the Berkeley Taxpayer Accountability District managers, employees and contractors.
This measure codified the primary role of government as delivering the maximum collective benefit to the taxpayers at the lowest possible cost and required optimization of all performance metrics based on this primary objective.
The measure instituted strict fiduciary duty upon the new Board of Governors to maximize the return on investment of every tax dollar. The measure gave individual taxpayers legal standing to sue any of the Governors personally if they failed in their fiduciary duty.
The measure empowered the Board to investigate and terminate any employee, including police officers, and to unilaterally adjust or terminate the contract of any party doing business with the city, for any reason whatsoever.
The measure required to Board to analyze on an annual basis whether any services can be performed at a higher quality and/or lower cost by private contractors and to outsource such services as necessary. It also required the Board to analyze contractor performance to ensure maximum return to the taxpayer.
The measure capped all salaries — including benefits, overtime and any other perks — for anyone receiving a paycheck from the new Taxpayer District or any contractor working for the District to the median household income in Berkeley (which was $63,000 as of 2015).
Finally the measure set out strict term limits for the Governors and for any person in employment of the city to a maximum of eight years, ending the plague of career-long municipal employment and ensuring that disruptive innovation would become the norm within our government.
Ballot Measure #3: Performance metrics and accountability requirements
The third measure laid out requirements for strict performance metrics and public reporting of those metrics by the new Taxpayer Accountability District through its website on a daily basis for each and every contractor and staff person receiving any funds from the District. The Board of Governors was also legally required to adjust any contract and terminate any employee that did not perform to those metrics.
The measure also set out very significant fines against public servants who failed to deliver high-quality customer service, and as a result the taxpayers started receiving unparalleled quality of service, sending the quality of life in Berkeley skyrocketing.
The naysayers are simply wrong. The data shows that yes, we can
The preceding vision might seem like pie in the sky and the naysayers are certain to crawl out of their dark depressed holes and pounce with criticism of how impossible they will think this to implement. Yet several factors make this vision not only very possible but also quite inevitable:
- The City as it stands is 100% functionally bankrupt and is shutting down infrastructure right and left in order to make out of control pension and salary payments to both past and present employees. We have a crisis of basic numbers.
- There are huge generational changes at play. The outgoing generation of leaders entered the City into debt agreements they knew would have to be paid by the future generations, knowing full well that these agreements were never otherwise sustainable. The younger generation coming into power and becoming the tax base are in no way morally or legally responsible for the debts to which we never agreed. In other words, we want nice toys and infrastructure and see no reason to pay for the mistakes and obligations of the past generations that are now retiring to the cemeteries.
- The economic demographics are rapidly changing as the tech sector brings both tremendous wealth and the radically different thinking that continues the socially liberal values of Berkeley while also introducing a very strong sense of progressive fiscal conservatism, accountability and disruptive innovation.
This vision certainly needs to be hashed out further with lawyers experienced in writing municipal laws, and there are certainly other aspects that need to be added.
Ultimately it’s not a question of whether this will happen, but how soon this will happen and how much money we’re going to flush down the toilet before it happens. Another Berkeley is inevitable – one that truly maximizes the extraordinary nature of our public assets, that truly solves some of our most pressing human needs, that thrives on innovation and that is a model of sustainability and accountability. Our government is extremely ripe for the same kind of disruptive innovation that has torn down the taxicab industry and so many others, improving lives and changing the course of history.
If there is support, I would be willing to invest at least $20,000 to jump-start the signature-gathering campaign and get the ball rolling. Will you join? Comment below and let’s start a real dialogue on how we can create a different future.
Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related, local authors are preferred, and we don’t publish anonymous pieces. Email submissions, as Word documents or embedded in the email, to email@example.com. The recommended length is 500-800 words. Please include your name and a one-line bio that includes full, relevant disclosures. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.