It’s budget season in Oakland, and the city council heard concerns from a standing-room-only crowd at Tuesday’s meeting.
Some 250 workers rallied on the City Hall steps ahead of the meeting to protest the mayor’s proposed budget, which focuses on investments in public safety, job creation, economic development and job training. But union members felt some of the most hard-hitting cuts were proposed to service programs–many of the jobs they do in the city.
After speeches by local service employee union leaders, the workers flooded into the building behind Oakland resident Angela Thomas as she sang “We Shall Overcome” into a megaphone. The voices of hundreds echoed through the building as people streamed up the marble stairs and into the council chambers. They packed the room and filled the balconies, holding signs that read “Hands off our pensions” and “We’ve paid our share enough.” A woman in balcony held a photo of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.
The singing segued into chanting as the council meeting got underway. “They said, ‘Take away,’ we said, ‘No way!’” people chanted, pumping fists and waving fingers, “I hope y’all got the message,” someone yelled as the clerk tried to impose order.
After an initial public comment period, both Mayor Jean Quan and City Administrator Deanna Santana presented Oakland residents with a line-by-line summary of the proposed budget for the 2013-2015 fiscal year.
Quan gave an overview of her proposal, which includes an initiative that will beef up staffing at the Oakland Police Department by adding four more training academies within the next two fiscal years. Her budget also proposes investing $82.7 million in infrastructure repairs, reducing funds by 10 percent to the Oakland Zoo, Chabot Space and Science Center, and the Oakland Asian Cultural Center and reducing funds to Head Start by $1.5 million. Head Start, a child development program, is open to Oakland families who are in need of day care services and aims to teach social skills and school readiness to children ages 3 to 5.
Quan says she plans to decrease spending by $11.6 million in the first year and by $16.1 million in the second year. She also proposed cutting up to 86 full-time positions with the city.
While some audience members said they were relieved to hear the shrinking police force might get more hires, union members took to the podium to tell the council they weren’t given a fair share in Quan’s budget and want more funds allocated to the jobs they represent.
“While courting new business and investors is key to our city’s financial health, your employees who build, maintain and improve the infrastructure and character of our community are getting left behind,” said Dwight McElroy, chapter president of the Service Employees International Union Local 102. “In your six-point budget priority list, you say you want to ‘foster Oakland youth and care for our most vulnerable population,’ yet the biggest cuts are proposed in safety-net services and program.”
He continued reading from a letter addressed to Quan, “While your attention is on more police officers, your budget hijacks public safety to a harshly reductive assumption: More police equals better public safety,” he read. “The low-income families and young children that so desperately need programs like Head Start, a popular program that offers nutrition and early education will suffer under your budget.”
Quan told audience members that the budget is balanced and includes necessary spending reductions. “I know that people are unhappy about how negotiations have gone in the past. I’ve tried to make it fair,” Quan said. “One of the things I’ve done in this budget is try to invest in areas that will grow our economy.” Quan says she plans for the city to invest in at least two major housing developments in the next few years.
But for some, that wasn’t enough. SEIU member Stephanie Hamilton, who works for the Oakland Public Library, took to the podium to bemoan the city’s increased reliance on part-time labor. “As our numbers are swelling, the full-time permanent jobs are diminishing … this is not right,” she said.
As a part-time library assistant she does the same work full-time library assistants do, like helping people use library computers, but unlike them she doesn’t get holiday pay or benefits, she said. Hamilton told the council she has spent years bouncing from one library branch to another on a daily basis until she got stable part-time work at the Elmhurst branch about three months ago. She’s been without health insurance for years. She used her experience to stress the toll of part-time work. “Stop treating us like we’re expensive liabilities,” she told the council to raucous applause.
According to Quan some of the cuts to services were a result of unexpected expenses such as the city having to pay a higher pension rate for its employee pensions, and the federal budget sequestration that has left many states having to readjust their fiscal plans.
The city has until June 30 to pass a budget, and some councilmembers said passing it may be difficult this year. “I think all of us want to and would love to fully fund every service department in the city, unfortunately we’re not going to be able to do that this upcoming budget,” said District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb. “We have some tough choices to make as we all know.”
“There’s no luxuries in Oakland right now. Everything we’re doing right now is essential to the quality for life, but we can’t shut down everything else and only deal with the police,” said District 3 representative Lynette Gibson-McElhaney.
District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks criticized the plan for its focus on funding police, rather than other city workers. “It is disheartening to hear about our employees having to turn the keys into their homes; it is disheartening to hear a conversation that always speaks to crime issue not being addressed by law enforcement and then all we talk about is police. We do not live in a vacuum. If we make sure people are gainfully employed our burglaries might come down,” she said to cheers from the audience.
“We have yet to ask the police department for anything,” Brooks continued. “We just keep throwing money that way with the expectation that something is going to happen.”
Public discussion of the city’s budget will continue throughout the month of May with a series of five town hall meetings open to all members of the Oakland community. Dates and addresses for those meetings are listed below.
May 9: Council District 7, Thursday 6:30 pm-8:30 pm, Marian Zimmer Auditorium, Oakland Zoo, 9777 Golf Links Road
May 13: District 5 & At Large, 6-8 pm, Pattern College (location tentative)
May 18: District 1 & 3, Saturday, 12-2 pm, Beebe Memorial Cathedral, 3900 Telegraph Ave.
May 19: District 2 & 4, Sunday 3:30-5:30 pm, Edna Brewer Middle School, 3748 13th Ave.
May 20: District 6, Monday, 6:30-8 pm, Frick Middle School, 2845-64th Ave.