Opinion: There is a great new partnership between the City Council, city manager and staff

While Berkeley must work to solve its pension liabilities, the city has an excellent staff with deep experience in addressing fiscal matters.

A recent op-ed about the potential impact of adding new employees to the city’s payroll focuses on a short exchange between myself and the city manager, Dee Williams-Ridley, at the tail end of our seven-hour May 30 City Council meeting. From this short, late-night snippet, the recent op-ed draws sweeping conclusions that I believe are unfair and inaccurate and fail to recognize the strong collaborative relationship that exists between this council and our dedicated, highly skilled city manager and staff.

We have a new team in Berkeley. City Manager Williams-Ridley was appointed less than two years ago, and our new deputy city manager, Jovan Grogan, started in September 2016. Since the 2016 elections, we also have a new mayor and four new City Council members.

Together with Berkeley’s four continuing council members, a new and strong partnership has been formed among Berkeley’s leaders. Under Mayor Arreguín’s chairmanship, council meetings are overwhelmingly cordial, respectful and productive. And in a change from practices under the previous city manager, council members now have the privilege to work collaboratively with department heads as well as the city manager and deputy. We may express differing opinions or even disagree at times, but I have no doubt that we are all committed to doing the best for Berkeley.

One of the greatest pleasures of becoming a City Council member has been getting to know and work with Williams-Ridley and our talented dedicated staff. In addition to carrying out day to day operations and helping us shape a sustainable future for Berkeley, staff study, develop and implement new, forward-thinking initiatives referred to them by our activist commissions and council. In the last few months alone, we have referred innovative solutions to address homelessness, displacement, affordable housing, climate change and equity, and to support Berkeley’s small businesses. We ask a lot of our city manager and staff, and they work hard to deliver.

Regarding Berkeley’s fiscal health, I have full confidence that our new team is on the path to responsibly address the enormous challenge of Berkeley’s unfunded liabilities. Rising pension and health care costs are not unique to Berkeley, are decades in the making, and to some extent reflect policies and demographics beyond our city’s immediate control. Of course, they also reflect decisions made locally over many years, and long-established norms.

Getting out of this predicament won’t be easy, and it won’t happen with a few gestures at the tail-end of a two-year budget development cycle. That is why I have asked to be appointed to the Council Budget Task Force that Mayor Arreguín will be establishing for the FY 2020-2021 budget cycle – the first that our new city leadership team will be developing together, from day one. Once we determine and set out in a new direction, it will still take years to close the gaps.

Williams-Ridley brings deep knowledge and experience to Berkeley, with over 15 years as a top manager in three jurisdictions: Modesto, with a budget and staffing comparable to Berkeley, San Mateo County, with 7,000 employees and a budget of over $2 billion, and Sacramento County, with 13,000 employees and a budget over $3 billion. Our new deputy city manager also has a strong background in municipal financial planning and, among other things, was responsible for overseeing the city of Concord’s budget during challenging times. There is no shortage of financial experience or acumen in Berkeley’s new top managers.

I know the city manager is just as eager as the mayor and council to take up the important task of addressing Berkeley’s pension and healthcare liabilities. In fact, Berkeley’s Budget Manager Teresa Berkeley recently proposed an innovative solution at an April 4, 2017, council work session. The Mayor’s Budget Task Force will consider this and other options as our new team carries out our first full budget planning cycle together – for FY 2020-2021.

For all their numbers and charts, the most important message of the city manager’s current budget proposals is contained in these three sentences, which speak to the work that lies ahead:

Over the next fiscal year, staff will work with Council, labor, and the community to address the ongoing structural deficits and bring projected expenditures in line with projected revenues. The goal is to achieve a long-term sustainable fiscal organization. This may involve a combination of expenditure reductions, identification of new revenues, or realignment of current services and programs.

I am eager to address these tasks in partnership with my City Council colleagues, with our excellent city manager, deputy, and finance staff, with labor, and with the public, we are all here to serve.

Sophie Hahn is a Berkeley City Council member representing District 5.