Homelessness, public safety, fire safety, arts top of mind in budget talks

The mayor has scheduled a “Budget 101” town hall for Tuesday, June 8.

Proposed Berkeley spending by department for fiscal year 2022, which begins July 1. Credit: City of Berkeley

Berkeley officials are taking a close look at the city budget this month as they work toward voting, at the end of June, to approve the next year of municipal spending.

Already themes are emerging from officials and community members alike, with policing, fire safety, homelessness and the survival of the local arts scene having come up as issues of concern. The bulk of the public comment to date, since full-scale budget talks began last week, has been from people urging council to cut the police budget and from those requesting an extra one-time allocation of $750,000 to support artistic endeavors.

The program garnering perhaps the most excitement is the city’s effort to create a new team of people — a Specialized Care Unit (SCU) — to respond to individuals in mental health crisis, or struggling with substance abuse, to get them the help they need. Proponents hope the SCU will free up police to focus on violent crime rather than social services. Staff has been working to design the program since council approved it last year and officials say they want to see the team funded now to ensure it can launch once plans firm up.

“It is going to be a complicated process,” City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley told council members Tuesday night. “It’s going to take time to stand something up, but we do need to allocate for that and we are moving in that direction.”


In the meantime, several council members have asked staff to come up with a proposal to expand the city’s mental health and police resources to bolster public safety. The city currently has 157 police officers, but nearly 20 of them are out due to injury and other types of leave.

The city’s Mobile Crisis Team, clinicians who work with police to respond to mental health calls, is also stretched thin. The core four-person team has two vacancies that have been open for 18 months, the city said this week; as a result, the team’s hours are limited to five days a week (they are off Tuesdays and Saturdays) from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

In the next few weeks, there will be five more meetings on the budget for community members who would like to weigh in or learn more: on Tuesday, the mayor is holding a “Budget 101” town hall; on June 10 and June 24, the council’s Budget & Finance subcommittee will get into the nitty-gritty of the budget; and, on June 15 and June 29, the entire City Council will discuss municipal spending.

The city has estimated its total budget for the upcoming fiscal year (FY22), which begins July 1, at nearly $594 million, with general fund spending — of $206 million — making up about a third of that. The Public Works Department accounts for about a quarter of the city’s overall spending, followed by the Health, Housing & Community Services Department at 14% and the police department at 13%.

Over the next few weeks, council members will be zeroing in on how much discretionary money is available in FY22 for more than $10 million in projects officials have referred to the budget process (see page 32). Staff has put forward about $11 million in funding needs. Officials will also be considering what to do with about $33 million Berkeley expects to get from the federal government as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.

Some of that money, nearly half, will be needed to balance the FY22 budget, staff has said. But there will be money left over for other things.

On Tuesday night, Councilmember Susan Wengraf said her priorities for the budget were likely to be fire safety, in the face of a “very, very dangerous fire season” that has already begun; public safety, to address recent spates of violent crime; and services for those experiencing homelessness, with a focus on programs that have measurable outcomes of success.

“These are the three issues that are life-and-death issues,” she said. “I’m forced to focus on them.”

Wengraf said she also hopes the city will give as much money to the arts as possible, to whatever extent it can.

Councilmember Kate Harrison pointed out to the public that projected spending on police is “essentially flat,” and also asked staff to consider what Berkeley might do now, before the SCU is launched, to get more mental health resources on the street, perhaps by relying on existing community organizations.

Councilmember Ben Bartlett, who put forward the idea of the SCU last year, said he is glad that work is moving forward, particularly as the mental health crisis on Berkeley streets continues to intensify.

“I know it’s taking a moment to pull it together, because it is complex,” he said. “It’s complicated and very expensive. However it’s imperative that we begin the process now.”

Council members also thanked staffers for their work in putting together the budget book for the upcoming fiscal year and noted that, for the first time, it includes performance measures that allow the city to explain “how much we do, how well we do it, and whether anyone is better off.”

“Over time,” according to the budget book, “departments will refine and improve their performance measures to make them better tools for decision-making and continuous improvement.”

Featured image: “The City and its People,” a mural by Romare Bearden. Credit: City of Berkeley

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.