Summer News: City Budget & Staffing, Addressing Encampments & BART Updates

Hi Neighbor,

I hope you’re able to take time this summer to slow down and enjoy these warm sunny days with your family and friends.

Last month, the Council approved a balanced budget for FY 2023-24, which you can read about in Berkeleyside and The Berkeley Scanner.

In the years I have served on the Council, it has been concerning to watch some of my Council colleagues attempt to initiate new costly programs and services without appearing to consider the annual ongoing cost and the availability of staff to deliver on their ambitions. In this year’s budget, there was a recognition by Mayor Arreguín that the City does not currently have the financial or staff capacity to deliver on some of his Reimagining Public Safety initiatives. This is something I have previously cautioned about, writing in a May 2022 newsletter, “I have serious concerns about whether it is realistic for a city of our size (or any size, for that matter) to take on this many public safety initiatives at once, and to do any of them well. As always, my approach is to prioritize the most pressing concerns and to do so in a fiscally responsible manner.” This year’s budget is pausing funding for some Reimaging Public Safety initiatives. 

I believe we have to ask hard budget questions when our city is unable to deliver on basic services. For example, our streets remain in an “at-risk” deteriorated condition due to years of inadequate investment. The condition of our sidewalks makes them far more dangerous to pedestrians than sidewalks in many other cities; this is due to budgetary decisions to fund other priorities. I believe we should fully fund basic services—like street paving and sidewalk repair—first, and I will continue to be a champion for this fiscal approach.  

The Council must also consider the availability of staff to deliver on new programs and services, and the added pension liability associated with new positions. City Auditor Jenny Wong released a new audit last month, Staff Shortages: City Services Constrained by Staff Retention Challenges and Delayed Hiring, finding that City staff “may not be able to balance Council referrals with their regular duties or providing baseline services.” The audit recommends, “City Council consider staff capacity when introducing new legislation, and limit or prioritize new legislation during periods of short staffing.”

The audit includes a total of 25 recommendations, with the vast majority directed to the City Manager’s Office and the Human Resources Department. Below, I have included the one-page summary of the audit’s objectives, findings, and recommendations. I also want to note that our City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley put forward in February a detailed workplan to implement an “Employer of Choice” initiative that addresses the recruitment and retention concerns identified in the City Auditor’s report.

Please SAVE THE DATE for my next Drop-In Meeting:

Wed., July 19 | 5-6 p.m.

Cedar Rose Park (Amphitheater Area)

In this newsletter:

City Audit: Staff Services: Constrained by Staff Retention Challenges and Delayed Hiring

Closing Measure T1 Infrastructure Bond Budget Shortfall To Restore Funding for Critical Projects

Measure T1 is a $100 million infrastructure bond approved by Berkeley voters in 2016 to renew the City’s aging infrastructure, including buildings, park facilities, streets, and more.

Due to construction cost increases and other unforeseen cost overruns for the first phase of T1 projects, City staff identified a $9 million budget shortfall for the second phase of projects. Due to this budget shortfall, critical District 1 projects were at risk of being delayed, including:

Cesar Chavez Park. Photo: Jill Martinucci

  • Permanent Restrooms at Cesar Chavez Park
  • Permanent Restrooms and Community Space at Tom Bates Sports Fields
  • Ohlone Park Lighting Project

I’m pleased that the Budget & Finance Policy Committee on which I serve accepted in large part the budget solution I proposed to draw on funds for projects that cannot proceed this fiscal year due to staff vacancies. The Hopkins Corridor Traffic and Placemaking Study was among the projects that cannot proceed this year due to staff vacancies in the Transportation Division of the Public Works Department.

A number of you have written to me expressing the urgency of repaving Hopkins—a street that is in poor to failing condition in certain segments. I am concerned about all of our streets, which are generally in an at-risk condition due to many years of underinvestment. In 2022, I successfully pushed the Council to add $14 million General Fund ($5 million in FY 2022-23 and $9 million in FY 2023-24) to our street paving budget. I also partnered with the Mayor and Councilmember Susan Wengraf to author a streets fiscal policy to ensure that the Council allocates a minimum of $15 million General Fund annually to street paving—more than double the prior annual General Fund street paving budget of $7 million. However, as costs continue to rise and street conditions deteriorate, we need to add more funding annually if we hope to improve our city’s average pavement condition. I introduced a major budget referral earlier this year to add an additional $4.7 million to our street paving budget in FY 2024-25 to help ensure that we keep up with rising costs.

The window to put the Hopkins paving project out to bid for this summer passed in April. The Public Works Department was unable to issue the contract because of the City Manager’s action to pause work on the Hopkins Corridor Traffic and Placemaking Study due to staff vacancies. Because work on Hopkins cannot proceed this year, the Council took unanimous action last month to redirect a portion of the Hopkins funds to close our Measure T1 infrastructure bond shortfall. This will ensure that other critical projects, such as the creation of permanent restrooms at Cesar Chavez Park and the Tom Bates Sports Fields, can proceed. Our Public Works Director has informed me that Hopkins will be on the five-year paving plan that Council will be considering this fall.

I will continue to be an advocate for adequate street paving funding, so that all of our deteriorating streets get the attention they deserve. At the same time, I’m pleased that the budget solution I proposed will ensure that critical infrastructure projects can proceed this year.

City Receives $4.9 Million State Grant to Address Dangerous Gilman District Encampment and House Individuals in Motel Rooms

Encampment at Eighth and Harrison Streets. Photo: Neighborhood Response Team

I’m pleased to share that the City applied for and was awarded a State Encampment Resolution Grant of $4.9 million. This funding will enable leasing of the Super 8 Motel on University Avenue to house individuals currently residing in a dangerous encampment in the Gilman District.

Encampments in Northwest Berkeley pose numerous health and safety hazards to homeless individuals and the surrounding neighborhood, such as fires, rodent infestations, and obstruction of the public right-of-way. City staff from multiple departments have undertaken Herculean efforts for years to regularly clean the area and conduct extensive outreach.

But we know that permanent housing with services is the only effective long-term solution, and that is the goal we have sought for years. The State Encampment Resolution Grant will enable the City to offer 24-7 transitional housing, with services to link people to permanent housing.

The Super 8 Motel will be operated by Insight Housing (formerly Berkeley Food and Housing Project) and will serve 23 individuals at a time. Insight Housing will provide three meals per day, transportation assistance, and intensive clinical case management to help link individuals to housing and supportive services. Program staff or security will be present at all times at the motel.

A body of research—comprehensively covered in the book Homelessness is a Housing Problem—uses statistical analysis to demonstrate that it is the housing market as a whole (i.e., rent levels and vacancy rates) that explains regional differences in homelessness among U.S. cities. In other words, places where the rent is too damn high are the same places with higher rates of homelessness. Drug use, mental illness, poverty, or local political context do not explain regional variation in homelessness, according to the data.

In our region, there is very little margin for error for low-income households; one negative episode or a spell of bad luck can quickly turn into housing loss. That is why more homes are needed—from permanent supportive housing and other affordable units to market-rate homes (the vast majority of low-income people live in market-rate housing because affordable housing is hard to finance). I have a record of saying yes to more homes, largely because I believe I have a responsibility to rely on data and evidence that tell us that the most effective treatment for homelessness is housing. I have also seen—time and again—that I receive far fewer complaints about permanent housing for formerly homeless people than I do for encampments.Pope Francis said, “When no one is to blame, everyone is to blame.” I think this is particularly true when it comes to homelessness. I do not support a situation in which we say we want to help the homeless, but then act in ways that ultimately leave it to another neighborhood, a different community—elsewhere—to create homes. We have to do it. Permanent housing is the solution to homelessness, and it also happens to be what is best for the health, safety, and security of our neighborhoods.

Brief BART Updates

Click HERE to take a brief survey

from the N. Berkeley BART Development Team on your preferences for outdoor space and ground-floor uses.Later this summer, BART will begin work to widen the Ohlone Greenway from the corner of Acton and Virginia Streets to Virginia Gardens as part of its North Berkeley Bicycle and Pedestrian Access Improvements Project

North Berkeley BART Station. Photo: Jill Martinucci

TOMORROW, Tues., July 18 the Council will hold a work session beginning at 6 p.m. to discuss Ashby BART Station Transit-Oriented Development and City Policies for Managing Parking Around BART Stations. Per City policy, residents of the future N. Berkeley BART development are not eligible for Residential Preferential Parking (RPP) permits on neighborhood streets that have opted into the RPP permit program.