After night of pleas, council passes cut-down budget

on October 22, 2008

By MAGGIE FAZELI FARD

Oct. 22 — After five hours of heated discussion–including pleas, arguments, and even musical performances by more than 200 Oaklanders begging city council members to reconsider layoffs and spending cuts–last night’s budget discussion ended somewhat anti-climactically.“Seven ayes,” Council President Ignacio De La Fuente mumbled into his microphone at approximately 11:20 p.m., bringing the main business of Tuesday’s council meeting to a close. “We have a budget.”

The council chambers were standing room only as the meeting began, senior citizens carrying canes hobnobbed with banner-wielding teenagers, and officials from the city’s parks department turned out alongside members of various arts and culture organizations. They were there in the hundreds –the fire marshall was forced to move the overflow to an alternate screening room midway through the discussion — to hear exactly what services would be cut and who would be fired to compensate for the city’s $42.5 million budget deficit.

Oakland residents line up to address the city council

“No one will be totally happy,” warned De La Fuente before Councilwoman Jean Quan enumerated the list of cuts set forth by the mayor and the council’s finance committee. All in all, about 163 positions will be cut across the city, said Quan. Close to two-thirds of these positions are currently filled, meaning that more than 100 city employees will be out of a job.

The approved budget also calls for cutting elected officials’ salaries by five percent, for a savings of $55,000; cutting the council’s discretionary budget in half, for a savings of approximately $1 million; reducing spending on “unnecessary” food, bottled water and flowers, to save $100,000; freezing overtime for non-sworn, non-emergency personnel, to save $175,000; and closing official city business one day a month through June, as well as from Dec. 26 through Jan. 2, 2009 for $3.8 million in savings.

While many other ideas have been tossed around since budget workshops began three weeks ago–closing some small parks, for example, as well as eliminating funding for Parks and Recreation staff, the senior shuttle, the libraries’ senior literacy program, the Bookmobile, arts and cultural programming, AIDS prevention and education, and tree trimming services– all of those items were restored to some degree in the approved budget.

The council incorporated long-term budget planning into the budget, too, including monthly budget reviews, negotiations with labor unions to offer early retirement and voluntary time off without pay, and possibly eliminating management leave and the professional development allowance. However, management leave and professional development allowance are both subject to negotiation, meaning that the new budget somewhat hopefully includes more than $1.5 million in cuts that might not be realizable.
While the budget does account for some revenue generation, including increased parking meter rates and parking citation fees, the bulk of the$42.5 million shortfall, $37.5 million of which is a deficit in the general fund, will be compensated for through the new cuts.

The city’s finances were hobbled by the questionable accounting practices of former City Administrator Deborah Edgerly, who overstated revenue projections for the current fiscal year by $37.5 million and dipped into reserve funds to cover revenue shortfalls and expenses, including police overtime.

Despite repeated assurances from the dais that council members had “done their best” to limit layoffs and cut services fairly across the board, 200 meeting attendees signed up to put in their two cents during public forum. With a long line winding out of the council chambers and down City Hall’s marble staircase, residents and employees spoke out in favor of seniors and parks funding. Representatives from unions Local 1021 and Local 21 criticized the council for not meeting with them during the budgeting process. Jarod Cooper, of the Oakland Raiders football team, supported continued funding for animal shelters. Members of the Oakland Black Cowboy Association, donning canary yellow button-downs and c owboy hats, appealed to the council to continue funding parades and street fairs, one of the proposed cuts, so they could hold their 35th annual parade next year. (Parade and fair funding eventually got the ax.)

Many speakers berated the council for ever having considered cuts to arts and cultural programming, while others demonstrated the fruits of the city’s arts through poetry, classical Chinese music, and an impromptu performance of civil rights song “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.”

But most speakers, including Oakland artists, students, parents and educators like Peralta Elementary School Principal Rosette Costello, thanked the council for continuing to offer arts programs to the city’s youth.

“Oakland arts equals a profound investment in Oakland,” said Costello. “Oakland arts equals school and neighborhood revitalization. Oakland arts equals the ability to put our best foot forward. Oakland arts equals student achievements. Oakland arts equals children who believe in themselves.”

Still, in the end, every speaker asked the council for one thing: no cuts. “If we don’t cut anything,” responded Councilwoman Quan, “we’ll be like Vallejo in a few months.” The financially strapped Vallejo in Solano County faced bankruptcy earlier this year. “I wish we didn’t have to do this,” continued Quan.

Quan’s apologetic attitude was met with skepticism by Councilwoman Desley Brooks, who set forth her own budget proposals that she argued would save more jobs and reduce cutbacks based largely on anticipated revenue from DMV liens that had not been accounted for.

“I think it is an unfortunate choice of words that you ‘wish you didn’t have to do this,’ because we don’t have to do this,” Brooks said to Quan, amid applause and cheers from the audience, which had dwindled by the end of the meeting.

“There was a way that we could give the public the services they deserve,” Brooks said. “There was a way to spread the pain to everybody. It is unfortunate that we choose to do it this way. We don’t have to do this. We’ve chosen to do this.”

According to Brooks, the city can expect close to $4 million from the DMV as soon as January or February. “The issue isn’t whether we’re going to collect this additional money, but when,” Brooks said.

Council members agreed to pass the budget as is, and to look into the additional revenue cited by Brooks in hopes of hiring back at least some of the people who will be laid off. De La Fuente said the re-hirings, if they occur, would be based on contractual standards and seniority.

“We’ve been spending the last couple of weeks totally analyzing every penny,” said Councilwoman Jane Brunner. “I hope the numbers Ms. Brooks has are right and that we can use them. If the $4 million pans out, I want to take it. People have been laid off. I want to bring them back.”

Following the budget vote, the first non-consent item of the evening, the council resumed its regular meeting. Other items on the evening’s agenda included an anti-nepotism ordinance, a salary ordinance that would prohibit the city administrator from offering salaries or benefits in excess of what has already been negotiated and discussion on developing “green” building ordinances for the city.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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