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Budget showdown, part 1: Dellums channels Obama, Oakland counts on federal stimulus money

on April 15, 2009

Under fluorescent lights, bingo charts and a disco ball, more than 100 people packed into the East Oakland Senior Center last night to throw in their two cents about how to close the city’s projected budget deficit. With $83 million on the table, every city program is fair game.

Last night’s meeting in deep East Oakland was the first of three community-input sessions on the budget. The next two will be held in the Glenview and Grand Lake neighborhoods. Oakland is required by law to submit a balanced budget, and to do so will have to realign its priorities as a city. Over the next three weeks, Oakland North will be covering these meetings as a way to examine what the concerns of residents from three very different Oakland neighborhoods can teach us about what those priorities are.

Dellums and City Councilwoman Jean Quan – who has herself been mentioned as a potential mayoral candidate – presided over last night’s meeting, answering questions and at times giving long explanations of the mechanics of city bureaucracy and revenue-raising strategies.

Mayor Dellums began the night by laying out the city’s budget woes in clear terms, explaining the gap between revenue and expenses and detailing how much of the budget was allocated to such city services as the  police and fire departments.

Perhaps seeking to head off criticism from a crowd comprised largely of senior citizens, Dellums stressed that his hope was to avoid making drastic cuts to senior services. “We’re in deep trouble,” he said, in a tone that quieted the room instantly. “We can’t speech our way out, we can’t talk our way out. But I believe the most vulnerable in our community have to be a priority.”

Though the meeting was billed as a chance for the community to make suggestions about ways to close the budget gap, its form instead fell somewhere between a civics lesson and a Q & A. Participants wrote down questions or comments on cards, which Councilmember Quan grouped by category and read out loud. Some people were asked to elaborate on their questions or comments, and each one was punctuated with long explanations of the mechanics of the budget and taxation.

Among the most frequently-voiced concerns had to do with cuts to services such as senior centers and food-distribution programs. Several people said that the recent city closure negatively affected their lives by depriving them of food and of places to go.

But by far the most reviled category of city spending was the amount dedicated to police: about 44 percent of the overall budget. Several commenters suggested that officers’ salaries, which start at $70,000, be renegotiated. Murmurs of shock filled the room when Dellums said only eight percent of the city’s officers lived in Oakland.

“I think 80 percent of the police department in Oakland should be from Oakland,” said Mary Forte, who owns It’s A Grind coffeehouse in downtown Oakland. During the meeting, Forte brought up issues of police inefficiency and urged the city to do more to support local business owners.

Later, Forte said she thought the meeting had gone “just okay,” as compared to her expectations.

“They could have let the people speak more,” she said, adding that she was expecting to hear more solutions, and have a more of a chance to voice ideas she’d thought about at home.

One thing the meeting made crystal-clear is that the city is relying heavily on the promise of federal stimulus money to compensate for deep cuts. In particular, Dellums said the city would seek to cut roughly $23 million from the police department, but fully expected to restore those funds with money from the stimulus

“I think we have a chance,” added Dellums. “Because I looked these folks in the eye and said, Oakland needs help.”

Dellums was referring to his recent trip to Washington, DC, where he met with Attorney General Eric Holder about projects in Oakland that might merit federal money. He returned, he said, enthusiastic about the prospect of receiving help from the federal government. The city must still apply for the money, and Quan said they were “praying to receive a huge chunk.”

In his rhetoric, Dellums appeared to channel the president he referred to as “this brother.” “We’re never going to see this moment again,” he said, referring again to the stimulus money Oakland is poised to receive. “Ever.”

Later on, two community members took to the mic to describe personal woes that they saw as connected to city budget issues: One man, a Vietnam veteran, described his difficulty accessing mental-health services and requested help doing volunteer work to pay off parking tickets. Another woman lamented what she saw as the city’s lack of response to her repeated requests for assistance dealing with her HIV-positive status. Both speakers earned applause, and Dellums promised both that his staff would meet with them personally to resolve the issues, echoing the promise President Obama made in February to a recently-homeless woman in Florida.

He maintained an easy rapport with the crowd even when they challenged his policies, and never lost an opportunity to crack a joke to ease the tension. After several people brought up the needs of senior citizens, he smiled before speaking and said, “I’m 73 years of age. I am a senior citizen!” While people were clearly concerned about the implications of the budget deficit, their frustrations did not seem to translate into any hostility towards the mayor himself.

Dellums ended the night with a speech about his own selflessness and dedication to the community in times of trouble. “I’m still a goddamn warrior,” he said, to torrents of enthusiastic applause.

Marie Turner was smiling as she waited to speak with the Mayor after the meeting. She said her biggest priorities were seniors and police inefficiency. “The police, the police, the police,” she said, shaking her head. ‘They’re not really doing their job. Why do we need more?”

But for the Mayor, she had nothing but praise. “It was great,” she said. “That’s what we needed to hear.”

The next two community meetings on the budget will be held Monday, April 20 at Edna Brewer Middle School and Monday, April 27 at the Lakeside Garden Center. Both meetings begin at 6:30 pm. More info is available on the Mayor’s website.

Going to a meeting? Got an idea for the budget? Oakland North wants to know! Leave your ideas and suggestions in the comments.


  1. JHorner on April 16, 2009 at 10:18 am

    Eric Holder: a man with no authority whatsoever over stimulus money. Great meeting, Ron!

  2. GDeBerry on April 19, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Town Hall meetings are a great place to corner City Hall into addressing your concerns. I witnessed two citizens who were ignored by City Hall (for whatever reason), get the personal attention of the Mayor and his staff at this first Budget Town Hall Meeting.


    A Great Report Casey!

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