Berkeley budget committee discusses fire season funding

photo of Berkeley while it's smokey
Bradley Machado/File
Measure FF, a parcel tax that would provide Berkeley about $8.5 million annually for public safety programs, was approved by city residents in November 2020. Berkeley Mayor inquired how city officials plan to use the funds for wildfire prevention during fire season.

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Berkeley City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee met Thursday to discuss the city’s plans for the 2022 fiscal year.

With a budget deadline of June 29, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín asked city officials how they plan to use Measure FF funds to prepare for the upcoming fire season.

“We are going to have a really bad summer,” Arreguín said during the meeting. “I just want to make sure we have enough funding for the wildfire expenditure piece.”

Approved by Berkeley residents in November 2020, Measure FF is a parcel tax that would provide the city an estimated $8.5 million annually for public safety programs, including wildfire prevention.

However, Arreguín noted that only $550,000 had been allocated in the proposed budget toward wildfire and vegetation management and less than $200,000 to the city’s Safe Passages program — an initiative to create emergency evacuation routes in case of a fire.

In response, City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said the city is expected to start collecting Measure FF funds in December, which can then be used to pay for previous and future fire safety expenses.

Assistant fire chief David Sprague also reaffirmed the Berkeley Fire Department’s commitment to vegetation management but told the committee that staffing shortages have impeded progress.

The department usually contracts its fuel abatement activities, Sprague explained. Due to a hiring freeze during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, he said the administrative staff that would normally oversee this process have had to take up frontline firefighting duties instead.

“It is very challenging because we have no one to do the work in fire,” Sprague said during the meeting.

The committee also discussed police funding, specifically the proposed $4.4 million in overtime pay for officers.

The meeting’s agenda notes that 30 positions in the Berkeley Police Department will be vacant next year as part of the city’s “police reimagining process.” However, to provide “baseline services” with these vacancies, the city has to pay law enforcement more in overtime compensation, interim police chief Jen Louis added.

Arreguín acknowledged the importance of paying officers adequately but mentioned that the need for overtime pay will be evaluated and possibly adjusted in the future, a process that has also occurred in the previous year.

“I don’t want to starve the department of funds needed over the next few months but oversight is important,” Arreguín said during the meeting.

However, City Councilmember Kate Harrison had a very different response toward the police budget presented to the committee.

The proposal for next year would increase funding for the department compared to last year, something that Harrison said might lead her to vote “no” on the budget altogether.

“I can’t accept these numbers,” Harrison said during the meeting. “I’m very concerned about this, but I don’t know what to do at this point.”

Contact Tristan Shaughnessy at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @TristanShaughn2.