West Berkeley plan will fund city staff, developers

Barbara Gilbert argues that in an effort to get more revenue to support Berkeley’s “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.

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.

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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.

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside. Email: tracey@citysidejournalism.org.