About 20 concerned citizens, activists and advocacy leaders debated the mayor’s new budget proposal Monday night at a town hall meeting organized by Councilmembers Patricia Kernighan and Nancy Nadel. The councilmembers hosted the meeting to gauge public opinion on the proposal—which calls for dramatic cuts to all but two departments—before the council votes on the matter Tuesday. City staff hurriedly devised the new budget over the past few weeks in an effort to fill a $28 million budget hole caused by the impending dissolution of the city’s redevelopment agency.
Though the crowd gathered in City Council chambers was small, the concerns raised were varied, ranging from worries about proposed layoffs to the partial de-funding of Children’s Fairyland.
Nadel opened the meeting by foregrounding two of her own concerns with the budget proposal: the defunding of the 211 program, a Bay Area social services hotline disproportionately utilized by Oaklanders that connects callers to food services, shelter, health care and other resources, and the downsizing of the illegal dumping program, which sends crews to remove debris and refuse from public spaces.
While both programs would still exist under the proposed budget, funding would be scaled back, with cuts mostly effecting low-income residents in areas like West Oakland, according to Nadel. But despite her emphasis on this issue, participants seemed more concerned with layoffs and the liquidation of redevelopment properties.
Former police officer to head Citizen’s Police Review Board
One cost-cutting measure proposed by city staff proved particularly controversial: The consolidation of Oakland’s Citizen Police Review Board (CPRB) with the Public Ethics Commission (PEC).
If the budget is approved Tuesday, the consolidation of the two groups would save the City Administrator’s Office more than $100,000 in 2012. But the proposal calls for PEC director and former police officer Kelly O’Haire to act as director of both organizations—an appointment that some community leaders regard as a conflict of interest.
“That would compromise the CPRB,” said a member of the ACLU East Bay chapter who spoke at the meeting. “We recommend that the person asked to serve is not a former police officer or a labor advocate for police officers. This is necessary to ensure the trust of the people.”
“We share your concern,” Kernighan responded. “The whole point of the CPRB is that its investigations are not by police officers—and the perception of complete neutrality is very important. “
More than 105 city layoffs
The bulk of cutbacks in the proposed city budget are staff positions, ranging from highly paid department heads to hourly workers and interns. The proposal calls for 105 full time jobs to be eliminated by February 1, as well as a handful of part-time positions.
Joe Keefer, a labor organizer with SEIU Local 1021, expressed concern over how quickly the layoffs would take effect and questioned whether city leaders were acting rashly and in the best interests of staff. “The layoffs were premature,” he said, referring to the 2,500 layoff notices issued by the city on January 18 in an effort to provide proper notice to anyone whose job could be at risk due to budget cuts.
“It didn’t have to be done that way,” Keefer said. “We’re being forced to make a decision [on layoffs] without having all of the information. The union still doesn’t know what’s happening… Once the city council votes on this, the train will have left the station and it’s going to be hard to stop or reverse it.”
Nadel said that she understood his concerns, but that the city didn’t have a lot of options. “We didn’t have the luxury of much time,” she said. “We certainly would like to have much more of a public process than we do.”
Assistant City Administrator Scott Johnson assured the group that his office has already begun meeting with labor unions to discuss the layoffs and would continue doing so as the process progresses.
City to sell redevelopment properties as quickly as possible
Several community members also expressed concern over the fate of about 170 properties owned by the redevelopment agency. AB 26, the law that mandated the elimination of redevelopment agencies this spring, calls for all properties owned by the agencies to be sold off as quickly as possibly and the proceeds divvied among all taxing entities and the city.
Gregory Hunter, deputy director of Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA) explained that some of these properties, such as parking garages, would be transferred to the city, while others are liquidated.
“I’m concerned about the word ‘liquidation,’” said East Oakland resident Valerie Carey, one of several people who said they were worried about redevelopment properties being sold at below-market prices, further hurting city funds. “Can we lease them and get cash as opposed to putting them out on the chopping block?” she asked.
Kernighan explained that there are “probably a number of properties that we can hang on to,” but that ultimately the decision rests with an oversight board that Gov. Jerry Brown will form later this spring.
But Bill Purcell, a real estate broker with the Bay Area firm Cornish & Carey, argued that many of the properties could be sold at a profit. “It’s a good market for some of these properties,” he said. “There are many ready offers that have been made to CEDA over the years, which CEDA declined because they had plans for them. … I would encourage the city to liquidate all assets as quickly as possible. I think it would go a good deal towards fixing the deficit.”
Johnson reiterated that the new budget would not effect libraries, senior centers, Head Start programs, police or fire services. “It’s important for people to understand what were proposing to save,” Johnson said.
Program subsidies for Children’s Fairlyand, Oakland Zoo and Symphony in the Schools would be reduced by 40 percent, while the subsidy for the Jack London Aquatic Center would be eliminated.
Impact on housing and schools
Affordable housing programs would also continue under a proposed Office of Housing & Community Development, though the city’s First Time Homebuyer’s Program, which administers small loans for low-income homebuyers, would be discontinued.
On the other side of the spectrum, schools stand to benefit from the dissolution of redevelopment agencies and the sale of their assets. The California Department of Finance estimates that $1.7 billion of seized redevelopment funds will go towards K-12 education in 2012—though Sabrina Landreth, the city of Oakland’s budget director, was skeptical that supplementary funds would actually make their way to Oakland schools this year.
“The state is not giving [OUSD] anything additional,” Landreth said. “This [money] basically plugs a hole, and alleviates some of the state’s existing obligation to schools. … It doesn’t give the districts more money.”
The City Council will vote on the proposed budget at a 5:30 pm meeting Tuesday, January 31.