The City Council approved a $729 million budget this week for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Most of the items were more or less what the council expected when it set its biennial budget before the current fiscal year began, although there was some shuffling and postponements of certain items to plug gaps in the city’s funding.
With some of the funding moving out of programs envisioned in the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, some advocates worried that the city was abandoning its commitments. But with staffing shortages plaguing several city agencies, officials said they couldn’t begin those programs even with the funding in place; however, they still intend to go through with them.
The city is in relatively good shape financially compared to neighboring cities now coping with the aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Oakland, for example, is facing the largest general fund shortfall “in its history,” according to a recent city report.
But interest rate hikes and the corresponding downturn in the real estate market have compelled the city’s finance experts to warn of declining revenues. Those declines have already made the city move some funds around.
The budget wasn’t the only item tied to city finances the council dealt with Tuesday. They moved a step forward toward a tax relief plan for local cannabis businesses, which have been coping with declining sales and a new state tax.
The council also voted on a five-year plan for waste collection rates that will raise most residents’ collection fees beginning in July.
‘Reimagining’, other funds reshuffled
With the city facing declining property transfer tax collections and millions of dollars worth of projects and programs still pending, the City Council agreed to shuffle around a little more than $12 million in funding in the $729 million budget they adopted Tuesday.
Mayor Jesse Arreguín made final recommendations last week, which the council’s Budget and Finance Committee approved.
The council pushed new recruitment allocations for the police and fire departments until November, when it will revisit its annual appropriations ordinance. As with several other city departments, its police and fire officials have said recruitment remains an ongoing issue, but Arreguín’s proposal said there was “enough available funding to keep these programs going to the end of 2023.”
Also pushed to November were several items that came out of the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force process: $50,000 for expansions for downtown street teams to deal with minor violations, $250,000 for a Department of Community Safety, $300,000 to germinate the Berkeley Department of Transportation (BerkDOT) and $300,000 for two different programs to reevaluate fines and fees.
The reimagining process, which wrapped up in 2022, was meant to increase non-police response to calls for service, especially in cases of mental health issues, where an armed response is not necessary, and for more minor offenses.
But delays in getting the actual programs from the package up and running, coupled with what some reform advocates see as obstruction of the Police Accountability Board, has given rise to accusations that the city is reneging on its promises to overhaul its approach to public safety.
Advocates disappointed, gravely concerned
Liza Lutzker, who worked on the reimagining task force and sits on the coordinating committee for Walk Bike Berkeley, which advocates for safety improvements to city streets, said the organization “is really disappointed” to see cuts to BerkDOT and the fine-and-fees analysis.
George Lippman, who previously chaired the Police Review Commission, the accountability board’s predecessor, criticized the council for using money from reimagining programs to fund gaps in the budget. “That decision will be remembered when people think about what values the budget displays,” he said Tuesday.
Nathan Mizell, a former Police Accountability Board member who is now a city rent commissioner, said he was “gravely concerned with the budget before us today.”
Officials said that pulling funding from some issues for this year, or even just part of it, did not mean they were abandoning them, and that they remained committed to the reimagining work. But a citywide staffing crisis means standing up those programs now isn’t even possible, and in some cases, the funds were needed elsewhere more keenly.
“There really wasn’t a whole lot of room to work with this budget cycle,” Arreguín said in a previous interview. “We are probably not where we’d like to be around the implementation of the reimagining public safety initiative.
“But for this year, it’s not going to realistically happen — and it makes sense to reprioritize those dollars.”
Additionally, a major component of BerkDOT, that of having non-police officers enforce vehicle code violations, is not currently allowed under state law. There is a senate bill that would allow it, SB50, but it remains under deliberation.
Elsewhere, the city redirected $900,000 that had been budgeted for a stalled project to add a new protected bike track on Hopkins Street toward pedestrian, bicycle and transit improvements citywide.
Hiring a new transportation manager, new West Berkeley Park ambassadors and new employees for the city’s Adopt-a-Spot program were pushed to November. So too, were funds for some camp scholarships, Marina Fund operations, maintenance of three new public restrooms, “no right on red” signs, and an e-bike rebate program, among other items.
Some hirings in the city’s Department of Health, Housing and Community Services will now come from Measure U1 affordable housing implementation funds. But while some personnel funding is getting postponed, money requested by the Office of the Director of Police Accountability for a new investigator was green-lit immediately.
All in all, the city added $997,916 in new expenditures, pushed $7,705,952 to November, and moved around $3,966,927 from original items to new ones in its most recent budget tweaks. Read the full breakdown.
Correction: This story was updated on June 30 to correct the city budget. The budget is $729 million, not $719 as originally reported.