After years of mismanagement and denial, the city is at the end of the fiscal line. There is more than $1 billion in unfunded liabilities for employee benefits and capital improvements and inadequate annual revenues to keep up with annual costs. About $252 million, about 80 percent of the city budget of $315 million, goes toward employee costs, with almost nothing left over to put toward these unfunded liabilities. The city has even cut worthwhile community social service agencies just to preserve its own employee structure.
In a desperate and duplicitous effort to get more revenue to support the bloated city structure and its developer friends, the city council is strong-arming a drastic up-zoning of West Berkeley that would destroy a thriving and unique residential/artisan/artist district as well as destroy the Aquatic Park. Most council members and their planning commission clones are pushing for several new super-huge research and development sites plus multifamily housing, with drastically increased heights and bulk and severe environmental detriments (traffic, shadows, view destruction, possible toxic leakage, interference with bird habitat, excessive density, etc.).
I am not opposed to good compensation and benefits for our city employees. However, what we have in Berkeley is literally off the charts. We have the highest number of employees per capita and the highest total compensation per employee compared to 12 nearby cities and zero employee contribution to pension and health care. The first order of city business should not be to mess with our neighborhoods but to renegotiate city employee contracts (all expiring on June 30) to get a 15 percent to 20 percent annual giveback, or $40 million to $50 million. This can be achieved by requiring contributions to retirement and health plans that most other public and private employees make and, if necessary, by downsizing the number of employees.
In a weird way, what is transpiring in Berkeley reflects what is happening nationally — destruction of the middle class through taxation and new rules for the benefit of the rich and the establishment, with crumbs going to the poor. Nationally, the crumbs would be the purported new jobs that only the rich can supposedly create. In Berkeley, the real benefits of new taxes and up-zoning go to the city bureaucracy and developers, and the crumbs go to Berkeley’s poor in the form of so-called required “community benefit packages.”
We must let our council representatives know that this is not what we want for Berkeley. We must vote accordingly. We must support the FACTS Initiative. We must not support any new taxes at this time. We must oppose drastic up-zoning of perfectly adequate areas of Berkeley. We must demand labor contracts that are fair to the rest of us. We must not vote for any politician who does not understand the issues.
Barbara Gilbert is a resident of Berkeley.
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