In lean times, City Council approves more budget cuts

From left, Oakland City Council Members Desley Brooks, Ignacio De La Fuente and Rebecca Kaplan consider more cuts to the City budget during a February 16 council meeting

From left, Oakland City Council Members Desley Brooks, Ignacio De La Fuente and Rebecca Kaplan consider more cuts to the City budget during a February 16 council meeting

Oakland residents filled the City Council chambers last night, pleading for a reprieve from an additional $15.3 million in city budget cuts to close the deficit for the 2009-10 fiscal year. After already excising $70 million from the current fiscal year budget, council members voted 6 to 2 to go through with most of the proposed cuts, acknowledging that core services would be affected and deeper cuts were likely for 2010-11.

Only Council Members Rebecca Kaplan and Ignacio De La Fuente voted against the cuts, with De La Fuente calling for more dramatic measures to close the deficit.

“There’s no way we cannot cut the budget—we’re required to do it,” De La Fuente said. “It’s still not balanced—we are using smoke and mirrors to say we are going to balance it.”

A public comment period slated to last one hour stretched to four, with more than 80 residents making the case for the city to preserve funding for libraries, the Chabot Science Center and more than 50 city staff positions affecting the police department, the information technology division and City Attorney’s office. By the end of the evening, the council reversed cuts to the City Attorney’s office and postponed the sale of two city garages, but proceeded with the other $11 million in cuts the council’s Finance Committee had proposed.

“Tonight is hard because we saw real faces of real people who are going to lose their jobs—and that’s very painful and difficult,” said council president and North Oakland representative Jane Brunner. “But we do have to make some of these hard cuts. Our core has to be police, fire, libraries, senior centers, and parks and recreation for children. Police and fire make up 75 percent of our budget.”

Several members of unions representing city employees spoke, claiming the cuts should be applied across the board rather than targeting specific departments. Calling for equity, several of these city employees said the City Council staff and the mayor’s offices should not be spared from the budget scalpel.

“I’m one of the people who is proposed to be laid off,” said Marge Stanzione, a member of the city’s Planning Department. “The city is losing some of its most experienced, talented staff. Rather than making cuts throughout the Planning Department, civil service rules should be followed.”

A large group of senior citizen advocates also showed up to speak, though there were no reductions targeting Oakland senior centers in this round of cuts. Over the four-hour budget hearing, the council fielded a wide range of queries, ranging from concerns about how Oakland would handle its upcoming pension commitments to whether selling the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center made financial sense. While council members acknowledged the severity of the cuts they made this year will have had a negative impact on the city, they also warned citizens that the worst is probably yet to come.

“The situation that city government finds itself in is unprecedented,” said council member Patricia Kernighan. “The drop in revenues has not been seen in decades, in our lifetimes perhaps. Tonight, we’re talking about getting through the rest of fiscal year. Starting in July, we will be facing cuts to the city that will be really tragic.”

With the budget discussion stretching out to four times its projected length, the council only tended to a few other issues last night. The most significant discussion surrounded the city’s new firearms ordinances, which enhance existing permitting requirements for the sale of firearms and ammunition in Oakland. More than 30 members of the public showed up to say that the city’s new proposal would not serve as an effective deterrent to crime and infringed on Second Amendment rights. Several opponents of the measure tried to link Oakland’s budget problems to its decision to make further prohibitions to the sale of handguns in the city.

“Oakland residents purchase firearms, and this bill means they’re not purchasing them in Oakland,” said Chris Wilson. “There’s probably revenue that would be going to Oakland — it doesn’t make sense that you’re talking about cutting library books while you’re legislating away money.

The council was not moved by these arguments, and approved the firearm ordinance without any no votes. Opponents of the ordinances vowed to take the matter to court.

“You’re going to get sued and you’re going to lose,” said Kevin Thomason, a lawyer who lives in East Oakland. “It cost San Francisco $380,000 when they lost their case against us. It will probably working out to be a million dollars when you lose.”

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