Opinionator

West Berkeley plan will fund city staff, developers

By Barbara Gilbert

Barbara Gilbert, a self-described "chronic Council observer," is a 43-year resident of Berkeley and has been actively involved in civic issues and neighborhood organizations, including Berkeley Budget SOS and the Committee for FACTS.

After years of mismanagement and denial, the City is at the end of the fiscal line. There is over $1 billion in unfunded liabilities for employee benefits and capital improvements and inadequate annual revenues to keep up with annual costs. About $262 million, about 80% of the City budget of $325 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, 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 destroying Aquatic Park. Most Council members and their Planning Commission clones are pushing for several new super-huge R&D 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, the highest total compensation per employee, 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, 2012) to get a 15% -20% annual giveback, $40M-$50M. 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 — destroy 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.

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles of 500 to 800 words. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related and local authors are preferred. Please email submissions to us. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

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  • Bruce Love

    The mayor’s compensation is used to fund a six figure salary for an aide.

    Sounds like a tax dodge to me.

  • EBGuy

     What are you talking about Bruce?  The mayor draws on his pension from his days at the statehouse.  While he works for ‘free’ (for the city), the salary he would have collected is redirected to fund an aide.

  • Biker 94703

    It is a relief to me that Berkeley’s finances are doing better than Vallejo, Richmond, Oakland, (or Hercules).  The problem is that those cities are doing about as well as Greece.  I guess that means we’re doing about as well as Spain.

  • Bruce Love

    What are you talking about Bruce?  The mayor draws on his pension from
    his days at the statehouse.  While he works for ‘free’ (for the city),
    the salary he would have collected is redirected to fund an aide.

    The mayor’s salary would normally be paid, well, to the mayor.   Taxes would be due.

    A mayor would be free to spend those post-tax dollars to hire an aide.   Additional taxes would be due on the aide’s salary.   The two salaries would be appropriately recognized as two, separately taxable salaries.

    In this scheme, though, the mayor is allowed to direct the spending of his paycheck, without having ever paid any taxes on it.   The mayor receives the benefit of controlling how the money is spent, without the cost of paying taxes on it.

    If the mayor simply wanted to forgo his salary — for the good of Berkeley — he could simply have declined it and returned it to the general fund, without using the City as a vehicle implement his personal direction on how it should be spent.

  • bgal4

     Sillyness.

    Fiscal responsibility is a value that makes good sense and good governance.

    Considering the impacts of upzoning is good city planning.

    If you don’t like her analysis, try providing some substance.

  • Gus

    Bruce, you really need to spend a couple of minutes familiarizing yourself with municipal bureaucracy. A mayor’s aide is a city employee with a specific portfolio, not a butler. So mayor’s aides are paid by the city, not out of the mayor’s pocket.

    Bates has three aides, each classified as an “Assistant to the Mayor.” Salary range for this classification is wide, but right in line with other Bay Area cities. Sbeydeh Viveros-Banderas is his office manager and makes about $76K. Calvin Fong advises the Mayor on transportation issues and makes a little under $82K.  And Nils Moe handles environmental issues and makes about $106K. Moe has an MS and an MBA, which is why he gets the bump to just over six figures. Find me another MBA in the Bay Area who will work for $106K.

    For a city of 100K people in 2012, none of those positions seem unreasonable or wildly overpaid to me. Maybe the Mayor did ask for his salary to be redirected to an aide position, but if he did, then we’re getting extra expertise at no extra cost.

    Just for reference, Ed Fong pulls down close to $300K, more than Berkeley’s entire mayoral office. Jean Quan makes almost  $200K.

  • Gus

    Maybe we should undertake some public policies that will encourage job growth.

  • Bruce Love

    Gus the issue isn’t whether these employees are paid a fair amount for the work they do.  The issue is that the mayor gets to direct the city’s pre-tax spending  of the salary he has “declined”.

  • pd

    Neighbourhoods are not always right about what their hood needs.
    Currently aquatic park is surrounded by many empty lots. New buildings up to 5 or stories tall, housing future residents, new businesses and workers, will bring west berkeley a community of citizens who use/love the park and west berkeley streets. Sounds like a great outcome.Compare the pedestrian traffic/experience at the corner of university and MLK today (after a 10 year fight to replace a derelict strip mall with the Trader Joe’s building) to before – this is an example of a good outcome.The same will happen in west berkeley. Let us stop talking and build already.The mis-managenent of government is real but is a different and separate issue.

  • concerned citizen

     (Quote from the article)
    if you’ve been a homeowner for any portion of
    your 43 years here, you’re only paying property taxes on a tiny portion of your
    home’s value. And yet, here we find right-wing anti-tax rhetoric being deployed
    by a good old Berkeley leftist. (Quote from the article)

    Amen…

  • The Sharkey

    Her analysis doesn’t have any substance either.

  • The Sharkey

    Would the Mayor not have this aide if he wasn’t diverting his salary to pay for the position?

    This is an honest question, and not an attempt to trap you or anything. I really don’t know.

  • The Sharkey

    The Trader Joe’s saga is a great example. Despite the doomsday predictions by neighborhood NIMBYs it’s been a major improvement for the area. Foot traffic on that stretch of University has increased, and it helps fill a need that the decaying miniature strip mall it replaced didn’t fill.

    The building isn’t perfect, but it’s a darn sight better than what it replaced.

  • Mike

    This whole op-ed reeks of NIMBYism. As a resident of West Berkeley, I cannot understand for the life of me how this proposal is so problematic, and I was disheartened when I saw that it had been shot down. When I walk to (one of the few) shops within a reasonable distance of my apartment, easily more than half of the real estate I pass is empty warehouses or closed-down auto body shops and the like. More stuff, frankly, would be appreciated, as I’m tired of having to go to downtown to get things that can’t be found at one of the tiny little shops on San Pablo.

    What’s even more bewildering about this, at a fundamental level, is the suggestion that denser development in parts of West Berkeley would be detrimental, somehow, to everyone currently living there. It wouldn’t be: fewer people would need to drive, and less frequently. Improved foot traffic would create a better opportunity for locally owned businesses without huge advertising budgets, and that includes the artists that populate many studios in the area. What actually seems to be the problem for the author is that it would involve “multifamily housing” with “increased height” – gasp, buildings larger than the one- or two-story cottages that provide the vast majority of housing for the area – and “super-huge R&D sites” – never mind that Bayer is already in West Berkeley, apparently to no one’s detriment since (justified bee protests aside) no one is showing up to picket them.

  • decide for yourself

    thanks for your reply gus, it makes perfect sense that they would try to revamp a plan which clearly went no where.  I’d just hate to see another 4th street shopping district, which is high-rent, and attracts only upper middle class shoppers become the dominant scene in west berkeley. 

    There is definitely a middle ground to be found – I’m not anti-development by any means.  I think infilling with small stores, shops and parks could have a better outcome than large development projects like fourth and u.  Its already getting better in west berkeley – examples include the new Viks (a great utilization of an old building), or 900 grayson, or even a larger development like berkeley bowl west.  I agree with later comments about MLK and University, but I don’t think thats a fair analogy.  The residential market is flooded with students (and student grocery shoppers) up there and I think developments like fourth and u seem to me to be leapfrogging a healthy developmental process which leads to failure.  

    …and for the record, by character, I mean everything found in those 70-100 year old buildings (old wood, fading signage, abandoned old rail tracks set into the streets, all the artists residing in the foundry and studio spaces on 9th and 10th streets).  Saving the “character” of west berkeley and development don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

  • Edward C. Moore

    I want to reply to The Sharkey:   You’re repeating an oft-heard litany that is quite misleading in its import. 

    West Berkeley is neither stagnant or in decline.  What has happened is older forms of manufacturing have gone out of business or moved elsewhere and other kinds of enterprises have moved in.  Consequently some forms of manufacturing jobs are fewer than in decades past.  More importantly the development of six or eight large parcels (so-called legacy sites) have become a subject of speculative investment.  Development is held up because owners and developers have been let to believe General Plan and Zoning Ordinance amendments economically favorable to them are in the offing.   Members of the Berkeley City Council admit their developmental objective is to increase the industrial land values through loosened restriction of building height, massing and uses.  The city council hopes to capture for public purposes “a significant percentage” of the newly created wealth in land by way of “public benefits” extracted as a condition for issuing a master-use permit to build.  This is no longer a sound basis for city planning if indeed it ever was.   Dictated from the top as this planning objective has been, it threatens all of us in many different ways that have simply been ignored by the proponents. 

    Regarding Clif Bar:   It is too bad, I suppose, that a successful company who wanted to stay had to leave if it was to grow bigger.   But that kind of result is exactly what plays into the strength of what the light-industrial industrial district in west Berkeley offers at its best.   It is a place of new-product incubation and early development by way of high-valued-added industry.   At some point it is expected that new companies will grow up and move on, thus making room for the next generation to develop.  The last thing Berkeley needs is another Bayer that occupies 25 acres or more.     

  • The Sharkey

    If you want to reply to me, why are you replying to Bruce Love?

    I think it’s kind of odd the way that you say that W.B. isn’t stagnant or in decline, and then try to explain that you think it’s stagnant because of speculative investment.

    Do you have any solid evidence that W.B. isn’t stagnant or in decline (net job growth in the area) or proof that speculative investing is what’s causing problems in W.B. rather than archaic zoning? Can you list some of these “threats” that will effect “all of us” in “many different ways?”

    Bayer aside, I would like to see the City of Berkeley start to benefit from the new jobs and added revenue when businesses that get “incubated” here succeed and expand. Clif Bar offered hundreds of good jobs and a great work environment, and now they’re in Emeryville because the current zoning wouldn’t allow them to expand their offices, and that’s a bad thing. Being a corporate nursery means never benefiting from investments we make into companies when they are small, as they grow and expand. While Bayer is a sometimes-unpleasant beast, companies like Clif Bar and Swerve shouldn’t be having to fight the zoning to establish their kinds of offices.