Officials and community members have expressed excitement over the past week about a proposal to set aside nearly $7 million in the upcoming fiscal year to address what has been described as a growing mental health crisis on Berkeley streets.

Under the current proposal from City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley, the bulk of that money, about $6 million, would be earmarked to fund a new Specialized Care Unit (SCU) that would respond instead of armed police to people in crisis due to mental illness or substance use.

That program is still being developed by staff, a community steering committee and the city’s Mental Health Commission, but staff has said some version of it could be ready to go by the end of the year.

In the meantime, to bridge the gap, the city manager has proposed spending an estimated $1.2 million on expanded mental health and outreach services for people in crisis.

This interim work would primarily involve getting more resources to existing outreach teams and community organizations that are helping link services — such as food, clothing, shelter and wellness checks — to people in need, Lisa Warhuus, who runs Berkeley’s Health, Housing and Community Services department, told officials Monday morning during a special meeting of the City Council’s budget committee.

This bridge program could allow community members to “reach out and make a phone call … to a number that is not necessarily police” if they see someone who needs help, Warhuus said Monday.

The city manager’s proposal also includes an estimated $1 million to establish a new two-person civilian data analysis team within the Berkeley Police Department (at an estimated cost of $400,000) and authorize a new “Problem Oriented Policing Team,” that would be staffed through overtime, to tackle crime trends and public safety issues in a more focused way.

The Berkeley Police Department currently has about 157 officers, which has been described by BPD officials as the minimum number it needs to keep patrol operations going.

Nearly 20 of those officers are currently out on leave, while other officers are slated to retire soon or are looking to move to other departments, staff has said. BPD has 17 officers who are eligible to retire now, and another 11 officers whose retirement dates aren’t far behind them, the department has said.

“This does not include sworn officers that are currently undergoing background investigations to be hired with other agencies,” according to BPD. “Within this past year, the Police Department has already had three (3) officers resign to accept sworn positions with other police departments.”

The police budget has been the focus of the bulk of the public comment during this year’s budget cycle, with most of the speakers who have participated in those discussions lobbying for less money for police.

Under the current proposal — which does not include the $1 million in new spending referenced above — staff has suggested a $78 million budget for BPD; in 2020, council approved a $77 million budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Staff has also proposed continuing to hold vacant 23 police officer positions, a savings of at least $5 million, so this money can be used to balance the rest of the city budget and fund ongoing work to reimagine public safety.

According to Monday’s budget presentation, the city has estimated $213 million in general fund spending, and revenues of $191 million, for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The city plans to bridge the gap and also pay for the new mental health and policing programs with nearly $67 million Berkeley expects to get over the next two years through a federal program called the American Rescue Plan Act.

The Berkeley City Council is slated to discuss the budget again Tuesday night and is scheduled to vote on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year during its meeting June 29.

Council’s Budget & Finance policy committee is scheduled to discuss the budget two more times — including during a special meeting June 22 — before the full City Council vote takes place.

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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...