Budget showdown, final installment: Third time’s the charm
on April 28, 2009
It took three meetings to get there, but Oakland city officials left last night’s final budget town hall with a wealth of creative suggestions, both on ways to close Oakland’s budget gap and on how to make the inevitable cuts less painful.
Over the past several weeks, Oakland has been soliciting community input on ways to close a projected $83 million deficit in the city’s general fund. Last night’s meeting was the final community session before Mayor Dellums puts forth his budget proposal next week.
Last night, citizens packed into the Lakeside Garden Center, murmuring amongst themselves as the evening progressed. The energy level was noticeably higher than at the previous two meetings — when Councilmember Jean Quan was almost through the written questions and suggested that those with additional concerns start approaching the mic, 23 people immediately left their seats and formed a line that went all the way to the back of the room. Though many people would leave as the meeting went on past its scheduled two hours, everyone who lined up waited patiently to be heard.
And they had ideas that were worth hearing. Oakland residents suggested leasing public buildings and taxing cargo containers; building urban gardens and aggressively promoting cultural activities; promoting a volunteer corps to staff libraries and senior centers, and shortening hours across the board rather than closing entire service centers, whether permanently or just for a day. Even members of the Uhuru Movement, which sent multiple speakers to the mic both this week and last week to protest the police budget, balanced their confrontational style with specific ideas about how the city could improve the quality of life for low-income residents.
Everyone seemed eager to help — so eager, in fact, that the council members weren’t quite sure what to tell them when they asked how they could stay involved. Still, a collectivist mood seemed to be upon many of the speakers. City firefighter Dan Robertson was one of the last people to speak, and used his allotted one minute to voice his concerns about the budget. “I’m speaking as a resident of the Dimond district, not a firefighter,” he began, but continued on to say that the five percent salary giveback the city is asking from every department is not enough. Firefighters already give back thirteen percent of what they make. “It’s above and beyond,” said Robertson.
Later, Robertson said he had initially planned to keep silent at this meeting, as he had during the previous one. But something about the way the night unfolded led him to change his mind. “The reason we incorporated as a city was to provide basic city services,” he said. “How do we get more from what we’re already paying for?”
In addition to Jean Quan, who has attended all three meetings, and Pat Kernighan, who has attended two, councilmembers Nancy Nadel and Rebecca Kaplan were present at last night’s gathering and fielded a number of community questions. Kaplan, who has been the at-large member of the council for just three months, was particularly enthusiastic about engaging people’s ideas, as well as outlining her strategies for other measures, not directly related to this year’s budget, that would help make the city solvent in the long term.
After the meeting, Kaplan said she was impressed by people’s ideas. “There were really good suggestions,” she said, adding that the council planned to consider all of them. “It can’t just be ‘Cut this’ versus ‘Cut that.'”
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