Budget Diaries: Just your average meeting, or the end of Oakland as we know it?
on June 2, 2009
The apocalypse seems near on Thursday. The Oakland City Council will meet for six hours to grill various department heads about their proposed cuts to balance the city budget. This is, many will say, the worst fiscal situation they have ever seen. Ever.
Thanks to a declining economy the general fund, which is the city’s annual income for almost half of its budget, is at least $83 million short of the $500 million it needs to pay for such services as police and fire, libraries, recreation programs and senior centers.
At 1:15 p.m. several council members straggle in from a side room, still chewing lunch. They sit. Seven community members line up in front of the lectern. They will have one minute and 30 seconds each to plead their cause before the department heads are brought in. The room is buzzing with people concerned about the future.
“We have a crisis,” says Patrick Camacho, a libraries advocate, as he delivers a petition signed by 752 Oakland residents to keep Lakeview library open more than two days a week. Behind him, several supporters wave a banner decorated with bright construction paper cut-outs. “We need more people to come here and speak longer and give you that message.”
But those that did discovered the 1.5 minute rule in full effect. BUZZZ, an alarm informs a few. For others, council president Jane Brunner interrupts. “Your time is up,” she says, swigging from a green can of soda.
On to the department heads. Raul Godinez, director of public works, looks pained as he tells the council that 73 full time employees are slated to be laid off, including half of their litter enforcement workers. “This is a historic low for park main staff in Oakland. We’ve never had to do this job with so little staffing,” Godinez says. Some of the council members seem surprised.
“Are you also going to be removing the litter receptacles so you don’t have to empty them?” council member Pat Kernighan asks, referring to the parks. Yes.
“What would you pick as a top priority if something could be put back into the budget?” council member Nancy Nadel asks after the information sinks in.
“That’s like asking me to pick favorites among children,” Godinez says.
Yep, Nadel answers. Horrible task, but “that’s the job we have.”
Godinez can’t decide. Instead, he offers three choices: park maintenance, maintaining roads and facilities.
Brunner wonders aloud about the weeds on the median strips. “If we are a city that wants businesses to come – then we can’t look like we’re falling apart,” she says.
Council member Desley Brooks follows up. “What does this translate to on the ground? What is the city going to look like when this is done?” No one knows.
The next victim: The Department of Community and Economic Development. Development Director Walter Cohen talks about their significant drop in revenue and says he plans to cut 22 (mostly vacant) positions.
Some of the council members grow visibly agitated as the hour drags on.
“What happens when you have a whole lot of homeless people and piles of garbage in your neighborhood and all of those things that come from having an emergency state?” Nadel asks.
She compares the future effects of the budget cuts on Oakland to that of Katrina “without a storm.”
As Gerald Simon, the fire chief, talks about eliminating only two full time employees, two community members holding yellow “Save the Library” signs and a banner appear to tire. Their signs droop.
Everyone wakes up towards the end of the hour when council member Desley Brooks steps into the ring. She looks suspicious after the Department of Administration and Elected Offices proposes transferring costs into another fund instead of cutting them.
“Doesn’t that fund have a $21 million deficit?” Brooks asks. After some back and forth, it turns out that she is correct.
“The bottom line is that there are no savings here because it all comes out of the general fund,” Brooks says, sounding exasperated. “It is smoke and mirrors, part of the problem I have with this budget. We need to have real information…so we can make informed decisions.”
Silence. No one is sure what to say.
Council member Ignacio De La Fuente agrees that the Mayor’s “variation” of a balanced budget postpones more than a few major payments. “What we’re doing is booking additional internal debt,” says council member Jean Quan. Everyone looks unhappy with this concept.
Hours Three and Four
Police Chief Howard Jordan takes the stand next and says he will get rid of the ranger program, police academies, as well as 140 officers if a much-anticipated federal COPS grant doesn’t come through. More frowns.
With the budget cuts, Jordan says, “We will be down to some basic functions of the department: responding to 911 calls and investigating criminal activity.”
“I’m not at all convinced that eliminating rangers saves money,” council member Rebecca Kaplan says, citing the special skills and training they receive to patrol parks and wooded areas.
Brunner finally calls a ten-minute break, during which this reporter grabs some much-needed caffeine. Several people talk worriedly in small, huddled groups. “This is a huge clusterf***” one well-dressed woman whispers to the man beside her.
The council members retreat to a side room where they eat and talk. They move very slowly back to their seats. Many community members have tired of the meeting as well, evidenced by the smaller crowd that returns.
Post-break, the council members subject Finance and Management to the toughest interrogation of the day. Brooks denounces their proposed cuts as “not savings, but a deferral in payments.”
In the process, a $36.3 million deficit figure is unmasked as a typo – the actual projected figure was $3.3 million. “That’s a big difference,” Brooks points out. Budget Director Cheryl Taylor agrees.
Ramping up the intensity, Brooks grills the department about how much money Oakland has ‘in cash’ on hand: $164 million. How about estimated debt? $171.4 million. Several department employees uneasily switch places at the lectern, attempting to answer. The tension in the room is palpable.
“For all intensive purposes, we are broke, people. And this budget doesn’t say that in a clear way,” Brooks says, displaying the only real emotion in the past hour. “We need to put together a real budget that makes real sense and not bankrupt this city because that’s where we’re headed.”
City Administrator Lindheim, sitting across the table from Brooks and sounding slightly defensive, denies that the large amount of debt was hidden in the budget, saying that it was all there, clearly stated. “If this is something the council doesn’t want to do, council knows about it, council can change it and can make cuts elsewhere,” he says.
Kernighan agrees with Brooks, saying it is horrific that the mayor’s budget proposal creates $25 million in new debt. “The only other option is making massive cuts to our police and fire department. It’s a bad place to be,” she says.
Hours Five and Six
The council members are visibly weary as the last department, Human Resources, takes the spotlight. While asking questions, Brunner places her left hand on her shoulder as if in pain. Council member Lawrence Reid and Nadel both put their hands on their foreheads and look slightly ill. Several members rub their eyes.
Everyone finds their second wind, however, when several council members mention the prospect of the state ‘borrowing’ Oakland’s money to pay for its own deficit. Nadel is visibly angry. “The state is stealing our money,” she says, calling the plan outrageous. “We have to fight back.”
This proves to be a cause everyone can agree on. They discuss organizing with the California All City League against the governor’s plan and Kaplan talks about “civic disobedience.” Ah, nothing like a little revolution!
At 6:00 pm, several community members who had been waiting to speak for five hours line up at the lectern. Some of them had spoken earlier, but actually want to speak again. Saving the recreation centers and parks is mentioned several times.
Brunner mistakenly tells one young woman that her time is up.
“I thought I still had 23 seconds left!” the woman says, grabbing her purse to leave. She had been talking about how important parks and recreation are for youth in Oakland. The city council wastes money on incidental expenses like bottled water, she argues, echoing an earlier comment by another speaker.
The woman tries to leave three more times, almost in tears, muttering about disrespect. “Argue it out, sister,” a man in the front row calls out. Brunner calls her back and apologizes. “I thought you were finished,” she says and tries to reassure her that her message was heard.
Even with this, the meeting ends 15 minutes early. Not to worry, the Council met again on Monday to continue the review and a budget, it promises, will be ready by June 30.
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