It was a bit surprising, as council was sorting out how to approach a revenue measure, with the deadline of February to put it on the city ballot rapidly approaching and faced with four options, that City Manager Dirk Brazil suddenly began to complain that council was asking for too much work from staff.
City Manager Brazil noted that the staff was seeking direction, “what we’ve heard is not consensus on what it is you want to seek…” He said, “It is a workload issue. I realize that it’s a couple of months but if you look at our January meeting, you look at the size of the items that are on there, you’re asking us to do some really serious research on revenues with a lot of competing interests here, that’s huge.”
“This is a lot of workload in what you’re recommending we do,” he said.
After the council defeated a substitute motion by Dan Wolk and passed a motion that included consideration of the soda tax, a parcel tax, and a transit occupancy tax, the city manager sought more clarification from the council.
Dirk Brazil stated, “Can I just have a clear statement as to what you expect us to come up with on the sugary beverages in particular? What is it that you need to see and have to make a decision on that one?” He added, “Because I really don’t know.”
Councilmember Brett Lee explained, “We are told there’s a small business exemption – what amount is that?” He added, “I’m not completely clear on the tax on distributor.” He said that he expects that this should be invisible to the shopkeepers but he’s not clear as to how it all works.
“In terms of outreach, there are a variety of people who have made outreach levels to us and perhaps there is just an open session in terms of what it is, what it isn’t, what’s going on in Berkeley, is it the same, is it not the same,” he said.
Mr. Brazil asked, “Is the thought that all of this comes back as one agenda item at, I presume, our last January meeting or one of the on-call meetings we have to specifically talk about these three revenue items?”
For Brett Lee, the sugary beverage tax was “the mystery item,” which he thought could come back as a small item in mid to late January. He said, “What are the specific mechanics of the… sugar sweetened beverage tax?”
Dirk Brazil expressed concerned that this is something we haven’t dealt with before.
Brett Lee said, “If you come back and say we don’t really know, we’re not ready to go, we’ll take that on board.”
Mr. Brazil then backtracked, stating, “We’re not taking the position of whether we are for or against the sugary beverage tax, this is all about workload.” He added, “I have the same discussion about whether you’re going to have a parcel tax – that’s going to raise a significant amount of opposition, I would think, particularly if we’re going to talk about a general tax versus a specific.”
He asked, “Are we supposed to engage the community on that discussion?” Robb Davis responded, “No.” Mr. Brazil said, “I’m asking the same thing on TOT, because I think our hoteliers are probably going to have an issue with that. They have not been engaged. I would think that you’re going to expect us to engage them on that as well.”
Dirk Brazil continued, “We continually have the request from you to talk about workload. And I’m being very honest with what I can see as a significant amount of workload on a very tight timeframe.”
At this point Robb Davis stepped in.
He said, “So what, you don’t want to work on any of the taxes? I’m not really grasping it, why is this all of sudden become about the workload?”
Dirk Brazil responded, “I think all of the significant things that we’ve talked about at these meetings Robb (is) what can we do – and if we’re going to do these things what are we not going to do?”
Robb Davis responded, “Fiscal sustainability is one of our major objectives and the tax measure is part of that. So I’m happy with you coming back at the next meeting and say we’re going to push off the following things for the next three months – I’ve been agreed with that all along.”
As he pointed out, “We’ve known that we were going to have to deal with the tax measure by February if we were going to do something. If staff was really in a position of wanting to say we are expecting you to go in this direction… I would have expected to see that in the report tonight.”
He added, “I’m just trying to work around where the angst is here.” Robb Davis noted again the existing agreement that, if there’s too much workload, the city manager is to come back to council to discuss what stuff to move off. But the tax issue can’t be moved off because there is a February deadline.
The mayor pro tem said that they may end up doing nothing, though he doubts that.
The city manager responded, “I guess I’m just raising awareness and we’ll come back and probably have to tell you things that we can’t do. We’ll see what this is going to take.” He added, “We’ll see what we’re up against in terms of time and demands and what we think we can deliver.”
Mayor Wolk ended the discussion stating, “I’m totally respectful of staff’s time, being a public employee myself.”
Here is the first portion of his comments prior to the vote:
Here is the city manager’s exchange with Robb Davis and Brett Lee following the council vote:
—David M. Greenwald reporting