The Berkeley City Council is on the cusp of closing a $12 million budget deficit without decimating city services. However, a recent report by a citizen’s watchdog group is raising questions about how much money Berkeley spends on its public employees, particularly on extra pay for city workers.
The report by Berkeley Budget SOS concluded that the city spends about $30 million on employee compensation above and beyond salaries, including overtime and other benefits. For example, the base salary of one Berkeley police sergeant is $127,000, but his “other” costs amounted to $320,000, according to the report. One fire apparatus operator’s base salary, meanwhile, is $109,000, but his “other” expenses are $189,000. The report also found that Berkeley spends more on these “other” expenses than nearby cities.
The report, “Impact of Employee Overtime,” originally concluded that all of the “other” expenses reflected overtime pay. City officials, however, objected, arguing that the “other” pay includes pay for such as things as working late shifts, extra pay for being a paramedic, hazardous materials team pay, holiday pay, vacation leave liquidation, uniform allowance, and more. According to the city manager’s office, the city spends about $7.6 million in overtime annually.
The confusion stems from the city not providing full employee compensation data to the public. “Whatever the cash payments are, they are significantly higher” than in the eleven nearby cities the report used to compare personnel expenses, said Jacquelyn McCormick, principal author of the report and former city council candidate. “The city needs to bring that information to light,” she said, arguing that Berkeley should hire a consultant and/or an outside auditor to detail overtime and other employee costs in order to cut expenses. McCormick added that she’s not a critic of the base pay earned by employees, which, she said, is commensurate with professionals working in the private sector.
While criticizing the citizen’s group for introducing misleading data on overtime into the budget discussion, Councilman Kriss Worthington said the report points out the need for management to present better budget data to the city council. For example, unless a councilmember asks the city manager to research what it costs the city to have its own hazardous materials team, the council wouldn’t be able to decide if it was more cost efficient than using county employees or hiring a private contractor.
Councilman Laurie Capitelli, however, said he has enough information to make good budget decisions. He said the council gets some of the cost information, such as on uniforms and differential pay, in closed session when the city is negotiating with labor unions. He added that the city’s budget reflects its values, which is why Berkeley has more fire stations and libraries per capita than many other cities.
Still, Worthington said the report serves as a reminder that the council needs more information on how overtime is used. Worthington pointed out that several years ago, when Code Pink was regularly demonstrating at the Marine Recruiting Center, there were sometimes more police officers on duty than demonstrators. And, he said, “At the July 4th festival, there is massive police staffing even though it’s a peaceful, family event.” Council is not regularly informed of these costs, Worthington said, adding that he supports police overtime when it’s related to fighting crime.
Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said overtime is critical when the public works “crews work around the clock, cutting trees, closing [dangerous] streets,” taking care of sewer breaks and flooding.
City Auditor Ann-Marie Hogan further explained the city’s use of overtime, saying that it makes fiscal sense to use existing employees working extra hours rather than hiring additional full-time police officers or firefighters, due to the cost of their training and benefits.
The Berkeley Budget SOS report also pointed out that the city has around 1,500 employees, more than the other cities considered, including those of similar or greater size. But Councilman Gordon Wozniak cautioned that making comparisons among cities based on the number of employees requires precision. “We provide a lot of services,” he said. “We provide our own ambulances, we provide our own refuse; we have our own health department — plus a marina.”
Wozniak added that a discussion focusing on overtime pay might be useful. “I’d like to have a cap on how much overtime an individual can work,” he said, explaining that it’s problematic for public safety personnel to be on duty for long periods of time.
McCormick said she hopes the aims of the report will be accomplished, regardless of the dispute about how much the city actually spends on overtime. “We’re just hopeful that through this effort, savings will be identified,” she said.
The council, meanwhile, plans to adopt the final budget on June 28. City management has tentatively closed the deficit by proposing to cut 79 staff positions over the next two years — some positions are vacant and others are filled. The budget balancing also anticipates a moderate upswing in the economy that will mean somewhat higher revenue in property, transfer, business license, and sales taxes.
Berkeley’s health department will suffer some of the deepest cuts, with a loss of about twenty positions over the next two years, but Health Services Director Beth Meyerson said with reorganization, most clients will continue to be served. For example, the city clinic will be open fewer days and will no longer give most immunizations, but all patients will have medical care, either at the clinic itself or by other nearby physicians. “We’ll make sure everyone has a medical home,” where low-income patients can get medical care in Berkeley, Meyerson said. She added that services at the Berkeley High School Clinic will be maintained.
The public works staff will likely be reduced by about fifteen positions over two years, as the city changes its garbage collection methods from two-person to mostly one-person trucks.