Mayor Jesse Arreguín said staff vacancies mean Berkeley would not be able to carry out several planned police reform initiatives over the coming year. He is proposing to redirect funding for the programs to other city needs. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight

Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s city budget proposal calls for spending $2 million to bolster a program to help renters avoid evictions and increasing funding for traffic safety projects. But with Berkeley facing an uncertain economic outlook and declining revenue from key sources, the mayor’s budget would also redirect just over $1 million that was promised last year to several closely watched police reform programs.

The City Council will take up the budget proposal on Tuesday, after it was passed out of the Budget and Finance Committee last week.

The council adopted a two-year, $733 million budget last June, so the city isn’t poised to make a major financial shakeup: That budget’s commitments to hire additional police officers, increase funding for street paving and put more money into reserve and pension funds all remain in place.

Unlike cities such as Oakland, Berkeley is not grappling with a major budget deficit this year. Still, the City Council and departments in City Hall have put forward requests for millions of dollars worth of new projects and programs. Meanwhile, finance staff have warned that Berkeley is weathering a downturn in revenues from its property transfer tax — which in recent years had ballooned amid a soaring real estate market — as interest rate hikes depressed both the number of property sales and their values.

The result, Arreguín said, is a budget proposal that made difficult choices to focus on initiatives that could be delivered in the coming year and leverage funding from other sources.

“There really wasn’t a whole lot of room to work with this budget cycle,” Arreguín said in an interview. “It’s about prioritizing the things that have to happen now, while we wait to get a better sense of our revenues.”

To preserve funding for other priorities, his proposal calls for pulling $300,000 that had been budgeted for the effort to develop a civilian transportation safety department, as well as $300,000 from initiatives to overhaul fines and fees, and $250,000 for a new “Department of Community Safety” envisioned to oversee reform programs, among other cuts. The City Council will reconsider funding for the policing programs when it takes up adjustments to the budget in November.

Arreguín insists his budget does not mean that Berkeley is backing away from the bold ideas for overhauling law enforcement that attracted national attention to the city when they were put forward in 2020. Instead, he said, it’s a recognition that staff vacancies and other limitations mean Berkeley will not be able to move forward with those programs over the coming year.

“We are probably not where we’d like to be around the implementation of the reimagining public safety initiative,” he acknowledged. “But for this year, it’s not going to realistically happen — and it makes sense to reprioritize those dollars.”

Arreguín noted his budget provides $100,000 to develop an “early intervention” program meant to flag troubling behaviors by officers, which was recommended by a 2021 police reform panel.

Councilmember Kate Harrison, who voted to advance the proposal at the budget committee, said restoring funding for the programs will be a priority for her.

“We did not cut them, we just moved them forward” to future budget cycles, Harrison said in an interview.

Elsewhere, the budget proposal leans on other funds and revenue sources to accomplish Arreguín’s goals.

The $2 million it would devote to Berkeley’s Housing Retention Program, which provides cash grants to pay down rent debt tenants accumulated when they lost income during the pandemic, will come from federal COVID relief funding and Measure P, the housing bond voters approved in 2018.

And the proposal would redirect $900,000 that had been budgeted for the stalled project to add a new protected bike track on Hopkins Street toward pedestrian, bicycle and transit improvements city-wide. If approved, the proposal would mark the second time the council has reallocated funding away from the controversial North Berkeley street redesign in recent weeks; members voted to pull nearly $3 million from the project to bridge a funding gap from the bond Measure T1 earlier this month.

Other initiatives in line for funding under Arreguín’s budget proposal include:

  • $400,000 for community outreach and polling that would represent early steps toward putting a parcel tax increase on the 2024 ballot to fund street repair and safety projects. Arreguín has said he plans to ask voters for such a tax increase, following the failure of the $650 million infrastructure bond Measure L in 2022.
  • $100,000 to explore converting Harold Way, the quiet one-block street between Kittredge Street and Allston Way in downtown Berkeley, into a pedestrian plaza.
  • $7,000 to launch a program that aims to address catalytic converter thefts by etching identifying numbers into them, which backers say would make it easier to track stolen devices.
  • $35,000 for pedestrian safety improvements on Arlington Avenue in the Berkeley Hills.
  • $85,000 for another pedestrian safety project, at the busy intersection of Sixth and Addison streets.

West Berkeley Councilmember Terry Taplin had requested $600,000 for a project at the intersection, which would have added a pedestrian-activated red light to stop oncoming drivers as well as a concrete “refuge island” in the middle of the street. The funding in Arreguín’s budget will allow the city to install flashing yellow beacons at the intersection — a less-extensive project, but one Arreguín said could be completed sooner when combined with a $40,000 contribution from the developer of a nearby life sciences project.

“It’s better than nothing,” Taplin said in an interview, “and it doesn’t close the door [on] future improvements once we have budgetary and staffing capacity.”

Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then,...