The Berkeley City Council on Zoom on Tuesday night. Image: Berkeleyside

Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and persistent calls to reform policing, officials pledged Tuesday night to take steps to remake the city budget as a “moral document” that better reflects Berkeley values.

The city is facing a $40 million budget shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1. To bridge that gap, staff and officials have come up with a long list of projects and positions that can be put on hold for now. In-depth budget discussions have been underway for months and council is slated to adopt its new budget with a vote next Tuesday.

The $40 million gap between the revenue and expenses expected in the city’s general fund this coming year is significantly higher than the estimates from April of $25 million. Staff later identified other costs related to insurance premiums, debt from the Center Street garage, spending tied to measures P and U1, and immediate infrastructure needs at the Berkeley Marina that widened the gap. There’s also at least $1 million in costs from the city’s coronavirus response, though much of that is likely to be reimbursed, staff has said.

Tuesday night, dozens of community members, including longtime local activists in favor of defunding as well as people associated with the Black Lives Matter reform movement, told the City Council it must immediately redirect money away from the Berkeley Police Department as part of whatever budget officials adopt next week.

The $70 million BPD budget was slated to make up nearly 45% of the city’s $157 million general fund total in FY21, the upcoming fiscal year. That’s only part of the picture, however, as the general fund is just one piece of the overall city budget, which was nearly $515 million this year.

Calls for police reform have intensified in recent weeks in response to in-custody deaths across the nation that received increased attention following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. Many powerful demonstrations have taken place locally and nationally to demand an overhaul now. Berkeley officials have pledged to heed those calls.

On Tuesday night, city leaders continued to promise the public that change is coming.

Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani said she wants the new city budget to include “a downpayment on reimagining public safety” in recognition of the fact that “our budget is a moral document.”

Kesarwani said the city must find money in FY21 for a series of recent police reform proposals council members have put forward, including a comprehensive audit of police calls suggested by Councilmember Ben Bartlett and a robust community process around public safety put forward by Councilmember Susan Wengraf. Officials are set to discuss a number of those ideas July 14.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín also asked Tuesday for the minimum number of police officers the city needs to keep Berkeley safe.

Police Chief Andrew Greenwood estimated that figure at approximately 166 to maintain “baseline” services and bring back a much-requested police bike patrol that had been disbanded due to low staffing. The city is currently authorized to hire 181 officers and has worked hard in recent years to address chronically low staffing levels by launching a number of new initiatives around recruitment.

The chief said BPD is also looking at moving from the current beat structure, where officers are assigned to different areas of the city with boundaries largely determined by the number of calls for service in each beat, to a broader “sector” system that would use data about crime trends to focus resources in a different way. The department is also looking at how to reduce general traffic stops to allow for a more focused response to crime, he said.

Greenwood said he is very open to shifting the responsibility for handling calls related to homelessness and mental health crises to other staff, a position he has repeatedly stated in recent weeks in response to the concerns of the community and city officials alike.

One possible solution that has been met with enthusiasm in recent weeks is a pilot program the Berkeley Fire Department launched in response to the COVID-19 pandemic where two paramedics in an SUV responded to calls around the city to keep people out of emergency rooms, instead directing them to clinics or other types of resources and services.

The program was funded by overtime, so it is currently on hold. City officials, including Arreguín and Bartlett, have said they would like to see the program continue and expand as a way to handle more calls without police.

“I know that your results were profound,” Bartlett told Berkeley Fire Chief Dave Brannigan on Tuesday night. Bartlett said he’d like to see a similar program that had a social worker on the team and could potentially involve “ordinary folks” who are underemployed to help check on neighbors who need help. 

That would be the “best outcome for police and for the people,” Bartlett said.

Councilmember Kate Harrison noted that, while city staff was able to address the bulk of the general fund budget gap this coming year, much of the money identified to do that came as a “one-time solution” through deferrals in spending and hiring, and with the help of the city’s reserves. But financial challenges are likely to persist for quite some time, she noted.

“We’re going to have this problem for four years,” Harrison said. “This problem is going to get worse, not better.”

To date, the city has said its plan is to focus on deferrals — putting off spending and hiring — rather than to consider layoffs. Harrison said Tuesday that the city is likely to “have to do more with attrition,” particularly for the police department, as far as leaving positions open when people retire from Berkeley or take jobs elsewhere.

City officials have said they want to take a much closer look at police overtime in the coming year to find a way to spend less on it. Harrison and others have said that money would be better spent on keeping people out of crisis rather than responding after the fact.

Earlier this year, the city manager asked all departments come up with a list of non-layoff-related deferrals — spending they can put off — totalling 15% of their budgets. Most were able to do that but some, including the police and fire departments, the Police Review Commission and the clerk’s office — were unable to succeed.

The challenge, in part, is that personnel costs make up the bulk of department expenses. Citywide that number is about 70%. In the police department, it’s 90%. So meeting the 15% threshold was not possible for them, staff has explained previously.

Some residents and city officials have taken issue with the idea of across-the-board cuts, saying they want to see certain departments — particularly Berkeley PD — get less money, so that other programs and services, such as those for youth, unsheltered people, seniors and other vulnerable populations, can continue.

“It’s a false idea of equity across our departments to just ask them all to accept the same level of cuts,” Councilmember Sophie Hahn said Tuesday night. Not all departments began with the same level of staffing, and some have had to take on significantly more responsibilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. “It doesn’t make sense to just say they’ll just be cut the same as everyone else.”

City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said Tuesday night that the 15% deferral approach is only the beginning, a way to balance the budget for the upcoming fiscal year before figuring out what comes next. In April, the city also instituted a hiring freeze. In the coming fiscal year, staff will make monthly reports to officials about where the budget stands.

Williams-Ridley said staff will have to look at “deeper reductions and savings” going forward.

Councilmember Lori Droste noted that this has been the most transparent budget process she has ever seen — between the regular meetings of the city’s budget policy committee and the repeated discussions undertaken by the full council.

Among other questions and ideas, Droste said Tuesday that she would like the city to consider whether the money it had previously allocated for separate programs for a sanctioned homeless camp and the expansion of the Pathways center might make more sense now as a single program given the city’s existing resources and approach to unsheltered individuals.

Several of her colleagues said they agreed and would like to rethink many of their allocations given existing conditions.

“This is really a time when we can reenvision our future and make some decisions around progress in our community,” Droste said, “especially around race and equity and our most vulnerable populations as well.”

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...