In a preview of what is likely to be a contentious budget meeting June 24, the Oakland City Council Tuesday night heard residents’ complaints about potentially laying off up to 200 police officers and staff in an attempt to balance the city’s fiscal year 2010 – 11 budget, which starts July 1.
After three years of layoffs, furloughs and cuts city councilmembers called “drastic,” the city still faces a $31.5 million shortfall for next year’s general fund. Councilmember Ignacio de la Fuente proposed laying off 200 police officers last month as one of many cuts to balance the budget. The Oakland Police and Fire Departments account for 72 percent of the $407 million annually spent from the general fund.
The city council agenda item, which passed with five votes, allows City Administrator Dan Lindheim to begin preparing the necessary paperwork—including letters to affected police officers—that would be needed if any layoffs are approved.
No police officers were laid off Tuesday night, and as Council President Jane Brunner reiterated, there is still a possibility that no police officer will be laid off when the council meets again on June 24. The council is hoping that continued negotiations between the city and the police department will yield a solution that avoids layoffs, but passed Tuesday’s agenda item as a time- and cost-saving measure.
According to city protocol, it will take the city administrator and the police department about a week to decide who would get a layoff notice and approximately another week for the letter to be sent and received. The city is required to give ten working days notice before any termination would take effect.
A small but passionate group residents and people with local business interests spoke against cutting the officers, noting their support for the police force.
Berkeley resident Sam Hurd used to live in Oakland and works as a volunteer for the Oakland Police Department. “I’m here to ask you not to take even small steps to layoff 200 police officers,” she said. “I know nothing about budgets. I realize it’s hard for you to make these decisions. But I do know safety issues along the [Oakland – Berkeley] border. It has been bad in the past and it’s been bad lately. The loss of even one officer in that area would be disastrous.”
Hurd said she had seen teenagers dealing drugs along the border even as she came to the city council meeting. “If even one officer is laid off and unavailable to answer calls, I’ll predict a minimum of five homicides this summer,” she said in a passionate plea. “You can count on it. I have seen it happen.”
Scott Peterson, Public Policy Director for the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, spoke on behalf of Oakland’s businesses when he said the Chamber of Commerce “could not in good conscience” support police layoffs. “The budget dilemma is severe, but public safety is the city’s number one concern,” Peterson said. “Beating back crime and changing the perception of Oakland is essential to attracting new companies and rebuilding confidence.”
After they heard from the public, each councilmember addressed the possibility of cutting police officers, noting it was not an option that they have come to lightly or hastily, but that they have received few, if any, promises of concessions from the Oakland Police Department.
De la Fuente spoke first, acknowledging the importance of police and firefighters but noting their expense to the city. “We have libraries in the city, recreation centers, parks, sewers, many other things that we are responsible for, not just police and fire,” he said. “We’re trying to balance all those needs.”
Councilmember Kaplan jumped in, offering a cost comparison of Oakland’s police officers to those in other cities. “The entry level salary in the Oakland Police Department… ranges from $71,000 to $90,000,” she said. “The entry level salary of the New York Police Department, where it is no cheaper to live and they have no less real need of police, is $44,000 a year.”
Kaplan went on to point out that low-level city employees are expected to contribute 9 percent of their paychecks to their own pension fund, while the city provides its police and fire personnel a retirement fund at no cost to them, sometimes at an amount greater than 100 percent of an officer’s final salary.
“We don’t want to lay off police, but we are constrained by Measure Y, Measure Q, and OFCY [the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth],” said Councilmember Desley Brooks. (Measure Y and Measure Q both passed in 2004.) “Those were all items that went to voters for approval and are now constraining us. We do a two-year budget process, and as everyone has said, we can’t look to one-time-only measures. They aren’t there anymore.”
“If concessions are made, not a single officer goes,” Brooks continued. “We want to ensure that we keep officers, but we can’t continue to do business as usual. We must make a change. The city can’t afford to give [police and fire] more than half of our money. We are mandated to pass a balanced budget and that’s what we’re attempting to do.”
Councilmember Jean Quan encouraged Oakland residents to attend a community meeting Thursday night at Peralta Elementary School in North Oakland to discuss the budget shortfall—the last of three such meetings city councilmembers have held in the last week to seek community input on the budget. “Try to [balance the budget] yourself and then come [to Thursday’s meeting] and tell us what you would do,” she said, mentioning an online interactive tool that allows people to practice balancing Oakland’s budget themselves.
“When you have 20 percent less money than you had three years ago and you’re trying to be fair and have a full-service city, not just Oakland police and fire, it becomes about your quality of life and the kind of city you want,” Quan continued. “That’s the question in front of us.”
De la Fuente has offered other concessions to the police department in exchange for laying off the police officers, including having them contribute 9 percent to their pensions each year (a figure de la Fuente has said would be enough to keep 36 officers in uniform) and cutting non-sworn personnel, like neighborhood service coordinators.
Budget plans proposed by councilmembers Brunner and De La Fuente highlight other cuts that can be made to close the gap, including shutting down city-run golf courses, selling the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, cutting salaries of non-union employees who make more than $100,000 and reducing the hours of senior centers. Unions and city management have already agreed to 12 business closure days, in addition to holidays, that most non-emergency personnel will take in the coming fiscal year.
Councilmembers Brunner, Reid and Kaplan abstained from voting for the measure to allow the city to start paperwork for police officer layoffs Tuesday night. Five of the eight city council members will have to vote on any final budget for it to pass. The deadline to do so is June 30.
In other council business, the council heard heated audience discussion about a proposed Verizon cell phone tower that is to go up in the Temescal district, but tabled any actions until July.