Berkeley plans to boost its street paving budget to ensure local roads don’t deteriorate further over the next two years.
The city is also set to restore police staffing, increase contributions to reserve and pension funds and provide money for a range of other new programs in the biennial budget for the 2023 and 2024 fiscal years. The City Council approved the $733 million budget Tuesday night.
Berkeley came into the budget process in solid financial shape, as strong property tax revenues and unusually high receipts from the city’s property transfer tax, plus federal COVID-19 relief funds, meant that rather than making cuts, officials were choosing how to prioritize a long list of initiatives they were hoping to fund.
Here’s a look at how the budget will address several key topics:
Funding aims to stop streets’ decline
Berkeley’s proposed spending plan would increase funding for road repairs by $5 million in its first year and $8 million in its second year, bringing the total paving budget to $15 million in the 2024 fiscal year. That’s the amount public works staff say the city needs to spend on its roads each year to keep their quality from getting worse.
The prospect of Berkeley’s roads staying in the same condition they’re in now might not sound like a reason to celebrate if you’re weary of potholes.
But city officials say it’s a big step in the right direction after years of insufficient funding left Berkeley with roads rated 57 out of 100, meaning they are “at risk” of significantly deteriorating. Speaking at a meeting of the city’s Budget and Finance Committee last week, Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani said providing more money for road maintenance sends an important message as Berkeley considers putting a measure on the November ballot that would raise parcel taxes to further fund paving work.
“I’m ecstatic about that,” Kesarwani said of the budget’s increased spending on streets. “That is a really important commitment that I am very happy to see us make in a year when we may be asking our voters to help with our deferred street maintenance.”
The final budget also includes an additional $1.5 million in funding for street and capital improvements at the Berkeley Marina, whose entrance was recently repaved.
Police, public safety funding to increase
Berkeley will put about $10 million more toward its police department in both 2023 and 2024, with the largest jump in allocations for salaries. The City Council voted this spring to restore positions on its police force along with a broad package of public safety changes.
The changes will include funding for about 20 vacant positions that have been empty since 2020, when Berkeley instituted a citywide pandemic hiring freeze (leading to high overtime costs), and the continued development of a new civilian Specialized Care Unit to respond to people experiencing mental health and substance abuse crises.
The city is also allocating more money for community agencies that focus on public safety and health, with a 4% increase to local groups compared to the current fiscal year. This is a jump from $21,260,574 to $22,043,881 toward housing services, homelessness and domestic violence prevention, programs for seniors and youth, recreation, arts, childcare and disability programs.
More money for reserves, pension trust
Berkeley is also planning to step up its contributions to two funds that could be important to its future fiscal health.
City Auditor Jenny Wong warned in an audit earlier this year that COVID-19 had knocked Berkeley off course in contributions to its reserve funds and a trust set up to help it meet future pension obligations.
The draft budget calls for putting about $5 million per year into the city’s reserves, which Berkeley could draw upon during a future recession or other financial trouble. The city established its reserves and began contributing to them in 2017, but drew $11.4 million out of the funds when the pandemic upended its finances in 2020. The proposed two-year budget would provide enough money to fully replenish the funds and start growing them again.
The budget would also direct $2 million annually to the pension trust, which can act as a rainy day fund for future retiree benefit costs. City spokesman Matthai Chakko said Berkeley’s total contribution to the trust in the budget’s first year is expected to reach $3.5 million, thanks to a $1.5 million discount it will receive for making one payment to the state’s public employee retirement system, rather than paying quarterly.
That amount is more than Berkeley has put toward the fund in recent years, but it’s still well short of the $5.5 million target officials have set for contributions to it in the past.
“The city’s revenues have not returned to pre-pandemic levels and the city’s cost of providing services are increasing,” Chakko said in a statement. “The $3.5 million estimated allocation to the trust in 2023 demonstrates a commitment to addressing the city’s pension liability while also continuing to provide core services and fund capital infrastructure based on the city’s limited financial resources.”
Reparations, charging stations get funds
Also approved were a set of recommendations Mayor Jesse Arreguín presented to the Budget and Finance Committee last week to fund, including:
- $1.2 million to install charging infrastructure for city-owned electric vehicles at Berkeley’s Corporation Yard
- $350,000 to hire a consultant who will design a plan for how the city could make reparations to its African American residents
- About $250,000 to step up parking enforcement in the Berkeley Hills to ensure illegally parked cars don’t create problems for emergency vehicles or wildfire evacuations
- $25,000 for a pilot program purchasing electric bicycles, which Berkeley city staff could use instead of cars to get around town on government business