Budget Woes, Safety Concerns Dominate Town Hall Meeting
on May 19, 2009
By ALEXIA UNDERWOOD
Councilmember and Vice Mayor Ignacio De La Fuente didn’t mince words at Monday night’s budget town hall meeting in Oakland.
“I’ve been around for 17 years, and I’ve never seen a deficit, or a challenge, like the one in front of us,” he said. “We really don’t have any options.”
Everything is up for cuts: the libraries, parks and recreation and the fire and police departments. The latter proved the most controversial, as resident after resident inquired about how the city council planned to lay off police when crime was already an issue of concern.
“How do you plan to balance the budget and lay off the officers?” asked Hannah James, a retired Oakland resident who has been following the budget proceedings. She was referring to Measure Y, the Violence Prevention and Public Safety Act of 2004, which provides funding to the city to add supplemental police officers. “How are you finessing that?”
The discussion, which lasted for an hour and a half, centered around the gaping hole in Oakland’s recently announced two-year budget plan: an $83-85 million deficit in the General Purpose Fund. The town hall meeting was held at Patten University and was hosted by City Administrator Dan Lindheim and De La Fuente.
The deficit is due to a combination of decreased funds because of the economic recession and the increased costs of current programs, according to the budget proposal issued by the Mayor’s office earlier this month. The General Purpose Fund, which is facing the most extreme deficit, accounts for 41 percent of Oakland’s annual $1 billion budget and pays for services like senior centers, recreation programs and police and fire protection.
“There’s good times and there’s bad times. These times are terrible times,” Lindheim said, his face somber, to an audience of about 35 Oakland residents. ”The cuts have got to be from everywhere – we have no choice.”
According to the city-issued budget overview, “the only way to address the unprecedented budget deficit is to cut public safety costs, which now account for 70 percent of the available General Purpose Fund revenues.” Another option is to secure outside funding. The city is applying for a federal COPS grant to avoid laying off officers.
Lindheim said that they were waiting to hear about how much grant money they would receive to make any final decisions about lay-offs. They expect to be notified in August or September. “We’re not laying off any officers until October 1 at the earliest,” he said.
He also sought to remind the audience that there were other issues at play. “We’re facing this dilemma, and the only place we can cut is the place we don’t want to cut. We’ve already asked for 20 percent cuts from other departments, and we’ve done three cycles,” he said. “What we need is more revenue.”
Some residents suggested making Oakland more business-friendly to invite local business and investment, and developing a better business marketing campaign.
Others expressed their shock at the extent of the deficit and its effects on their local community. Robin Goodfellow, a musican, artist and Oakland resident, said that the library she volunteered for was already so reduced in staff that they couldn’t even accept her free help. “They were so cut to the bone, they couldn’t even organize the volunteers. They couldn’t put out the flyers,” she said.
While Lindheim did much of the talking, De La Fuente, wearing an orange shirt, dress coat and cowboy boots, didn’t hesitate to interject his opinion, frequently chiming in to express outrage and frustration along with the residents. “I hear you,” he said on more than one occasion. “We’re going to have be creative. We’re going to have make sure that everyone shares the pain,” he said, referring to the across-the-board cuts.
After the meeting, James tracked down De La Fuente to give him a piece of her mind. “I don’t think people understand how we got here,” she said, standing on the steps next to the University gates, as people filed out. According to James, the budget problem is a systemic issue within the city council. She blamed it on politicians doling out money to residents to create loyalty by fixing small things, while not putting money into capital improvements.
Despite this, however, she liked De La Fuente and his willingness to engage in discussion. “He’ll go toe to toe with you. He doesn’t ever hold a grudge, unlike anyone else on the council,” she said.
A tentative budget is planned for release on June 16. A final budget needs to be balanced by June 30, Lindheim said.
As the meeting drew to a close, the tone was no more optimistic. De La Fuente has served five terms on the city council but this time around, he said, “is the only time I have no clue how we’re going to do this.”
There is a budget hearing on Thursday, May 28 from 4-7 p.m. in the City Council Chambers. The next Town Hall meeting is Wednesday, May 27 at 6:30 p.m. and will be televised by KTOP Channel 10.
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