It's time for leadership change in Berkeley.
Residents generously contribute to their city and schools by taxing themselves extra to pay for services and facilities. In exchange, they deserve sound fiscal management.
But at City Hall, the financial picture is grim. General fund expenditures increased 4 percent over the past five years, yet staff was cut 13 percent. The city is spending more and providing less service.
Meanwhile, Berkeley faces an annual structural deficit of about $3 million, meaning it will spend more than it takes in unless more cuts are made. Most significantly, the city has run up debt of about $570 million for underfunded employee retirement programs.
That's right: More than half a billion dollars. That's more than four years of city payroll, excluding overtime. Or, think of it this way: It's about $5,000 for each city resident. Yet city employees, excluding police and fire, pay nothing toward their pensions.
Mounting payments on pension debt help explain why city expenditures increased slightly, yet the workforce shrank. If city officials fail to act, the problem will worsen.
Unfortunately, most City Council incumbents in this year's election seem unconcerned. Mayor Tom Bates touts the city's bond rating. But bondholders get first dibs on the money. The issue is whether there will be enough funds left over for maintaining city services.
Councilman Kriss Worthington, now running for mayor, was ignorant of the size of the problem. Councilman Max Anderson, seeking re-election, dismisses the shortfall. "For us to focus so obsessively on it ... is maybe a little bit diversionary," he told us. "We have bigger fish to fry than the debt."
We couldn't disagree more. As mayoral candidate Jacquelyn McCormick, who champions financial reform, correctly points out, "If we don't have the money, we can't fund social services, we can't get our roads fixed." District 5 candidate Sophie Hahn notes the other travesty: "What we have been doing is borrowing from our children," who will be stuck with the debt.
We endorse candidates in the Nov. 6 election who understand the issue and are ready to act. McCormick and Hahn top our list.
They are taking on incumbents: Bates, who has been mayor for a decade, and Laurie Capitelli, councilman for eight years. Neither officeholder shows a sense of urgency or deep concern.
Similarly, in District 3, we endorse Dmitri Belser to replace Anderson. While Belser will have a steep learning curve, he comes with an open mind and a history of community leadership.
The only incumbent we endorse is District 2 Councilman Darryl Moore, not because he has led on solving these fiscal problems in the past but because we think he could in the future. He brings budget expertise and articulates well that the city must re-examine what services it can afford.
We have warned of Berkeley's problem for three years. It's time for leaders who take it seriously: McCormick for mayor, Hahn in District 5, Belser in District 3 and Moore in District 2.
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