The City That Works

Berkeley, often derided for its political zaniness, is one of America's best-run municipalities

| November-December 2003

Last fall, voters in Berkeley, California, considered a ballot initiative that would prohibit café owners from serving any coffee that wasn’t “organic, shade-grown, or fair-trade certified.” Offenders could spend up to six months in jail.

If that doesn’t surprise you, then you’re probably not alone. For most of the last century, “Berserkeley” has been the epicenter of American political correctness, a beacon to idealistic true believers everywhere, and a place where conventional thinking rarely gets much respect.

So you might expect that in this era of shrinking government budgets and radical tax cutting, Berkeley and its wildly innovative government would be sucking a little air. After all, activist government is hardly in fashion.

But, as David L. Kirp reports in The American Prospect (July/Aug. 2003), Berkeley is thriving as few other American cities are. Its city-run summer camps are going strong, its libraries are open evenings and weekends, and its public transportation system continues to deliver almost one in five residents to work every day—four times the national and state average. A generous city tax incentive has allowed nearly 60 percent of its housing stock to be retrofitted against earthquakes, and a four-year city initiative has cut the number of low-birth-weight babies by 40 percent. “To celebrate Berkeley-style,” Kirp notes, “1,130 women came together in a mass breast-feeding last summer, breaking the Guinness world record.”

And unlike nearby Oakland and San Francisco, Berkeley is balancing its books without layoffs or service cuts. The city’s real estate parcel tax helps it raise more tax money per capita than its larger neighbors, but, Kirp argues, the key to Berkeley’s success has as much to do with intelligent management as it does with higher taxes. By instituting a hiring freeze and cutting back on capital expenditures, the city this year will run a small surplus.

All this adds up to one of the state’s highest bond ratings and a reputation, at least among financial experts, that is decidedly un-Berserkeley.
Craig Cox

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