In a community meeting that was often spirited and at one point even led to a physical altercation, city officials met with Oakland residents Thursday night for the last of three sessions to share ideas about how to close the city’s budget gap.
Councilmembers Jane Brunner and Jean Quan and City Administrator Dan Lindheim moderated the two-hour session, held at Peralta Elementary School in North Oakland. Over 100 residents of Oakland and neighboring communities sat in metal folding chairs and stood around the edges of the school cafeteria. Posters and charts on easels around the room illustrated Oakland’s budget problem and how the council got to the point of looking at such drastic cuts next week.
After three years of layoffs, furloughs and cuts, which Brunner estimated Thursday night to have totaled about $107 million, the city still faces a $31.5 million shortfall for next year’s general fund. The council must balance the budget before the new 2010-2011 fiscal year starts on July 1.
“It’s a very serious problem,” said Brunner, addressing the crowd in her opening remarks. “There’s nobody who wants to make any of these cuts.”
Brunner noted that the council is mainly considering one-time cuts, like selling property or laying off staff—meaning the city won’t be able to repeat these cost-cutting measures to find revenue in the future. She said the projected budget deficit for the following fiscal year, FY 2011-12, is in the range of $53 million to $61 million, which will be even harder to balance if the council can’t find some sustainable cuts this year.
The most controversial solution to balance the current budget was proposed by Councilmember Ignacio de la Fuente and would lay off 200 police officers to save an estimated $20 million. Sustainable solutions to the budget problem would involve voters going to the polls in November. Voters could approve amending Measure Y, which was originally passed by voters in 2004 and requires the city to keep 739 police officers on staff in order for the city to receive about $20 million in funding for violence prevention programs and the police and fire departments. (As city officials point out, because of Measure Y, cutting one police officer would mean losing the $20 million in funding. The city wouldn’t earn money until the 64th officer was laid off, and to make enough of a budget impact, about 200 officers would need to be cut.) A fix to the measure would reduce the number of police officers the city would have to keep on hand in order to receive money for its safety programs. Voters could also pass a new tax to bring in new revenue.
“We have been in the last three years chopping this budget,” Brunner said. “So this year we’re dealing with the hardest piece, which is—there’s a little room, but there’s not very much room that is waste. We’re really getting to, whatever we’re cutting, we’re going to start cutting programs.”
Before the meeting began, residents mingled with each other and with Brunner and Quan. East Oakland residents Phillip Duke and Denise Brodie had been to a similar community meeting in East Oakland on Monday night and were back, they said, not to speak but to hear how the issues—especially the proposal to lay off 200 police officers—would be addressed. “I don’t see anyway to solve this except to release the police officers,” said Duke. “I’d like to see the next police and fire department contract not to be so liberal with pensions.”
Brodie agreed. “We want to see the police give,” she said. “It’s not fair. If they were willing to give, it would cause fewer layoffs in the city. We need them, yes, but everyone’s got to give a little, and they aren’t giving on an equal basis with the rest of the city.”
Once the meeting started, a steady line of residents stood to the left side of the room, waiting to present their ideas or ask questions. In the most dramatic moment of the evening, Oakland resident Diana Chavez asked the panel why desk jobs in the police department couldn’t be filled by unpaid volunteers. She and Councilmember Quan debated her idea at the microphone, but were interrupted by a man in the audience.
“Are you with a union?” he yelled to Chavez.
“Don’t start with me,” she yelled back. “I’ll come back there.” The two continued to exchange words as Chavez walked back to his seat and stooped down to yell in the man’s face. The altercation ended when Chavez slapped the man, causing Brunner and the police officer observing the event to come and break up the impromptu fight.
Once order was restored, other solutions from the audience ranged from raising participation fees on some parks and recreation programs to declaring bankruptcy, as the city of Vallejo is doing.
“That sign back there says, ‘Why is Oakland going broke?’” said Oakland resident Ethan Edelman, pointing to one of the posters in the back of the room. “It’s not going broke. It is broke. Why not just declare bankruptcy and use that money to balance the budget?”
The suggestion was met by applause from the crowd; Brunner, Quan and Lindheim remained expressionless at the front of the room.
The most consistent plea of the evening was to save parks and recreation programs and library hours rather than saving the jobs of police officers. “I’m going to get the rap before y’all,” said Albert Easley, a young black male with long dreads. “How is it easier for my 18-year-old brother to go to jail for the summer than for him to go to the pool?”
“If you take away stuff for them to do, they’ll commit the crime,” Easley continued, asking the panel to help the city’s youth. “Don’t call the police. Call the football coach.”
Other residents said they would vote for a tax of some sort on the November ballot—but only if they knew exactly where the money would go and how it would be used. “We won’t vote for taxes unless we see a systemic plan that is long-term,” said Ed Hanneman, who has lived in Oakland for 25 years. “No more cuts year after year.” Many residents in the room agreed, applauding and nodding their heads.
Once all the questions were asked, each panel member got up to address specific concerns, the most pressing of which was the bankruptcy issue. “The only thing that would put the city in insolvency is to not be able to get the cash flow limits,” said Lindheim. “The first thing you say about the b-word, your ability to get those cash flow limits all of a sudden comes in great jeopardy, because rating industries have requirements about what they must disclose and people have options of where to purchase their investments. So I suppose that if there were really people in the audience who wanted the city to go into bankruptcy, the way that that would occur is to start yelling that word.”
Quan agreed that bankruptcy is currently not Oakland’s best option during her own remarks, noting that Vallejo is not saving the city a lot of money or headaches by declaring bankruptcy, because a judge had control over how the city negotiated its new contracts. She said she preferred having the power to negotiate with the police union directly to see if a compromise could be found.
Quan also defended not offering drastic cuts for children’s programs like Kids First, a youth leadership development program first approved by voters in 1995. “You’ve got to remember that 40 percent of the population is under 21,” she said. “I don’t begrudge the kids four percent of the budget.”
The council will begin budget deliberations in a special city council meeting next Thursday night, June 24. If they cannot finish Thursday night, they will wrap up negotiations and make final decisions in their regularly scheduled meeting on June 29. Both meetings will start at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall.
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