Budget showdown, part 2: No more pie-in-the-sky; who represents the community?
on April 21, 2009
It was a night for stark assessments: Oakland’s budget for next year will be “the most difficult ever,” said one city councilmember; “the worst ever,” said another. Officials began last night’s town hall meeting on how to close Oakland’s $83 million budget gap with a plea for the community to come together, choose its priorities, and share the inevitable pain. “Where is the money going to come from?” asked council president Jane Brunner. “It is going to come from everything you love.”
Last night’s meeting, held in the gym of Edna Brewer Middle School in Glenview, was the second of three town halls the city is holding on the budget, inviting residents to voice their savings ideas. The first was last week at the East Oakland Senior Center, and the final one will take place early next week. Oakland North is covering all three meetings in an examination of how people’s priorities vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, and how those priorities will affect budget decisions.
About sixty people gathered for last night’s meeting. The room was still sweltering after yesterday’s heat, and many people used their handouts of pie charts and bar graphs to fan themselves.
Mayor Ron Dellums was apparently sick with stomach flu and not able to attend as he had planned. In his absence, this meeting lacked the soaring rhetoric and populist optimism that characterized last week’s gathering in East Oakland. The city officials who were present — four city council members and several representatives of the city administrator’s office — painted a much starker, and likely more realistic picture of the choices Oakland faces. The city has drained its reserves, said administrator Dan Lindheim. Balancing the budget is an “impossible challenge.”
Nowhere was the difference more apparent than in last night’s brief discussion of stimulus money. “Stimulus money is not going to save us,” said Brunner. It would be nice to have, she said, and Oakland has applied for everything it’s qualified for, but the city might not get it. And even in a best-case scenario, she said, stimulus money will not fix the budget.
Her assessment of the situation was a far cry from last week, when Dellums assured the East Oakland crowd that he had “looked those folks in the eye,” in Washington, and that they knew the city needed help. Brunner and her fellow councilmembers emphasized that the city was leveraging Dellums’ national-level connections to secure money for Oakland. But unlike Dellums, they emphasized that the city couldn’t count on those funds.
Throughout the meeting, officials still seemed to be struggling to strike the right balance between speaking and listening, though their task last night was without a doubt made more difficult by speakers who refused to yield the floor. A contingent of the People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement sent four speakers to the mic to advocate significant cuts to the police budget and more economic development for Oakland’s African-American and Latino communities. Their style was often confrontational—one woman compared the situation of poor people in Oakland to that of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip—but council president Brunner took it in stride, acknowledging that the city could do much more to combat poverty but pointing to what she said were successes in job training and other kinds of economic support. The questions were valid, she said, but also difficult to answer. “I came from poverty, so I understand,” she said. “The way out is jobs.”
A number of other suggestions came out as the night went on, both from speakers and from written questions. Some people favored renegotiating the charter of the Port of Oakland to wring more revenue from it; others thought Oakland should do more to develop new revenue sources. One questioner suggested that the city consider bankruptcy. (“We’re not there yet,” said Lindheim.) Towards the end of the meeting, one woman made a plea for preserving libraries and Parks and Recreation as some of the only city services that have “an unalloyed positive relationship with the people of Oakland.” Her statement was the only one to draw applause from the whole room.
Throughout the meeting, there was a definite sense that cutting the budget came down to services vs. the police, though officials tried to stress that no department would be immune from cuts. Uhuru member Shanrika Turney said afterwards that she didn’t feel all of her concerns had been addressed, but that she planned to meet with city officials to discuss more of her concerns. She was the first speaker to bring up economic development and what she called “police containment” of communities of color in Oakland, and also the one who brought up the Gaza Strip. “So much money goes to police,” she said. “If put more money into the community, and building that up, you wouldn’t need the police.”
That vein of anger was tapped at last week’s meeting as well, and reflects a deep divide in the city, said city firefighter Dan Robertson. Robertson did not speak at the meeting but was present for the whole thing. “Oakland as a community is quite split,” he said. “Tonight you heard some people talking about ‘cut the police,’ and other people I’m sure don’t want the police cut. But those are some tough decisions that the council has to make.”
The final community meeting on the budget will be held Monday, April 27 at the Lakeside Garden Center at 6:30 pm. More info is available on the Mayor’s website.
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