El Cerrito’s Economic Issues Complicated By Covid-19

Comments made at March 25, City Council meeting where Council passed ordinance to provide short-term protection against evictions of renters due to ramifications of the Coronavirus pandemic.

We are here tonight dealing with a narrow but very important issue resulting from the COVID-19 virus pandemic. Residential and commercial evictions do not make for a stable city or economy.

It is a very dramatic and difficult time for El Cerrito, the Bay Area and our country.

The phrase “we are all in this together” has rightly been called out daily by public officials in connection to our Coronavirus crisis. It is what many of us said even before this health crisis — about our local financial situation here in El Cerrito as we head toward a State Audit. Now the phrase is even more important!

In anticipation of another recession, we recently set our path toward resolving and addressing many of the issues that kept our budget from solvency:

  • Council has asked staff to cut $500 thousand from this year’s budget, and
  • to cut $2 million more to our upcoming 2-year budget.

Recent news, however, probably means we will have to do much more. Because now in addition to a health crisis, Covid-19 has indeed brought the recession that we feared to our door. The Governor today made the point that his budget will be different than previously expected – but the state has $20 billion in reserves.

El Cerrito has none.

The resulting shut down of services, businesses and isolation of our workforce has only compounded the hit to El Cerrito and the tough choices that must be made.

The choices that I said previously would be difficult to make — have become much easier — because there are fewer alternatives.

Our Council has not yet seen what the city staff will propose for us to consider. But tonight, I want to say out loud some of the big ideas we should be considering at this time. I have faith in our staff, but when we do get those options at a future Council meeting, I will want to revisit this list and ask why or why not some of these hard decisions were not chosen. Should we be:

  • cutting our budget 5% across the board;
  • establishing a hiring freeze;
  • establishing a pay freeze for 2 years;
  • reviewing again our city events – (it’s probably time now to revisit our July 4th celebration in the context of the virus outbreak. The Olympics have now been postponed, etc.;
  • reviewing our contracts to determine if there are more opportunities to in-house certain operations or services
  • increasing recreational rates to non-residents;
  • cutting recreational hours/pool;
  • establishing parking charges around our 2 BART stations;
  • restructuring and streamlining our Public Safety departments (Fire and Police);
  • rethinking the role of our inspectors to possibly collect any fees at the sale of a house;
  • establishing a cap on employee pensions;
  • considering vacancy rate charges for empty buildings;
  • reviewing overtime policies for safety officials;
  • reviewing cash flow procedures;
  • possibly initiating a ballot measure to increase our city lighting and stormwater costs.

I may not favor all of these, but I sure will want to know that they have been considered.

If we are to gain the support of our community, we must first show that we considered and made tough choices to right our course.

If at the end of this process (after dramatic cuts) we still need to reach out, like the city of Alameda, to seek local taxes to alleviate budgetary problems…we will need the support of our community.

I have said that I thought the State Audit we will be participating in can be a good thing for our city — and that we should heed any recommendations. I am not sure about its timing, but it may behoove us to set up this year’s budget process in a way that allows us to respond and possibly incorporate or amend the audit suggestions into our budget and strategic planning.

Whatever we decide to do — it must be fair. We must all be willing to take a hit with the services or events or venues that we like about this city … because “we are in this together.” And we are together for El Cerrito.

Thank you

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