The Oakland City Council voted Thursday night to lay off 80 police officers to help close the city’s $30.5 million budget gap. Various city government departments—including the City Administrator’s office, City Council, the Fire Department, and Information Technology Department also had their budgets cut, by a total of $18.7 million, as part of the fix.
“All of you who work for the city, what you do is appreciated,” said councilmember Patricia Kernighan before the vote. “The very sad fact is that there now is simply not enough money to keep us all going, and providing the level of services that we have provided.”
The 5 to 3 vote came towards the end of a much anticipated, but surprisingly calm, special meeting held in the council chambers to find a way to balance the city’s budget before the July 1 budget deadline. Before the meeting, some 75 children rallied in front of City Hall, chanting “Save our parks” and “Don’t cut OPR [Office of Parks and Recreation]”.
At 5:30pm, some of the older rallying youth went into City Hall and lined the back wall of the council chambers. They were flanked by a smaller, and older, group of people wearing pool-water colored placards printed with “SAVE OUR POOLS” around their necks protesting the possible closure of city swimming pools. Several wore swim caps and had goggles strapped around their foreheads.
As the meeting started, policemen stood in navy blue t-shirts along the top rows of the chamber’s upper level. Members of the Service Employees International Union, which represents many city employees, formed a block of purple—the color of their union t-shirts—in the main chamber. They offered suggestions for increasing the city’s revenue stream, by improving collection of fees from franchise agreements with private companies, for example.
But shortly after the meeting the meeting began, much of the crowd dispersed, after Council President Jane Brunner made it clear that closing recreation services, pools and senior centers wasn’t on the table.
Thursday evening’s vote closed the current chapter—though likely not the last—in a bitter fight between the police officers’ union (the Oakland Police Officers Association) and the city over whether officers should contribute more to their pension funds. Officers currently contribute nothing to their pension funds, though they agreed last year to begin pitching in two percent of their paychecks in 2013, when their current contract is up. Other city employees contribute 9 percent to their retirement purses.
The average salary of Oakland police officers is $103,000, according to Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan. If officers pay into their pension funds at the same rate as other city employees, the city would save over $7 million per year.
After breaking off negotiations with the city at the start of the week, the Oakland Police Officers Association had been escalating its public relations campaign in an attempt to garner support from the public. Monday morning, the officers held a press conference at the site of a recent shooting death to warn of the potential dangers of removing officers from the streets. (At that time, several councilmembers had proposed cutting 200 officers.) On Tuesday, the union held a job fair for officers who could be laid off, and invited the press.
Also on Tuesday, some Oakland residents received phone calls in which a recorded voice warned that laying off cops would “place everyone who lives and works in Oakland at risk.” The caller urged residents to call Councilmember Jean Quan, who chairs the City Council’s Finance and Management Committee, to protest the measure. (The East Bay Express posted the call on their website.) Quan authored the proposal along with councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente, Pat Kernighan and Council President Jane Brunner.
In response to the calls, Quan sent an email to constituents on Wednesday, saying claims made in the phone call that the council had “refused to consider other viable options [for balancing the budget]” weren’t true, and that she was unfairly singled out in the phone call, while the other city officials who drafted the proposal weren’t mentioned.
At Thursday night’s meeting, Councilmember Desley Brooks said it was “extremely despicable” that the officers had used the scene of a homicide to advance their cause. Nevertheless, Brooks voted against the package of budget cuts, saying the city needed to reform its accounting methods and stop relying on short-term budget fixes.
“The budget being proposed tonight is smoke and mirrors,” said Brooks. “It is not sustainable.”
At the start of the meeting, Mayor Ron Dellums, who has been criticized for not taking a visible role in the budget cutting process, addressed the Council, urging them to vote for the proposed budget cuts, and emphasizing the importance of recreation and other violence prevention efforts alongside policing.
“Our priority in this city has been public safety, but we have taken a multidimensional, multi-pronged approach to public safety,” said Dellums. “It means that we address the pressures in our community that give rise to crime and violence—that’s never going to be solely a police function.”
Over two hundred people signed up to speak at the City Council meeting, though only a few dozen did so, the others having left early or ceded their time to other speakers. Several people praised the council for coming up with a tough but fair spread of budget cuts, and many scolded the police union for refusing to negotiate their pensions when other city employees and programs had made sacrifices.
Unionized city employees took a 10 percent pay cut during last year’s budget trimming. “I’d like to call on members of the police force to come up to the table,” said Rich Bolecek, program and site coordinator for Oakland Discovery Center, an educational parks facility. “It’s like your family, you don’t lay off your kids when you’re short on money—everybody eats a little bit less.”
A few speakers defended the officers’ unwillingness to negotiate their pensions. “We’ve been bashing the police all night tonight,” said Jeff Jensen, a North Oakland resident who’s been a public employee for 20 years. “There’s a reason why [police officers] are compensated the way they are—they put their lives on the line every single day.” Jensen said cutting the police force would compromise the security needed for economic development.
Dominique Arotzarena, president of the Oakland Police Officer’s Association, reminded the council and public that the officers had “given up” $34 million in last year’s budget cycle. The savings came from an agreement from the officers to forego a 4 percent pay raise and give up six holidays for three years, among other concessions. “I think that should be noted,” said Arotzarena, looking rather defeated at the podium.
Most of the original crowd was gone by the time the council voted on the measure, shortly after 9 pm. Police layoff notices will be sent out Friday but won’t be effective for two weeks. However, more could be on the way next January unless voters approve changes to increase the flexibility of Measure Y, the 2004 voter initiative that requires the city to maintain 739 officers on staff in order to get nearly $20 million in funding for violence prevention programs, additional police and fire services. The city will lose those funds this year, but could get them back if voters pass changes to the law.
Quan said she still believed the layoffs could be avoided if officers are willing to accept some of the burden of paying into their own pension funds.
“Quite frankly, any program that allows employees to retire at age 50 with $100,000 a year without paying anything into it, is unsustainable,” said Quan. “It’s going to take concessions.”
Negotiations between the city and the officers union are set to start again this Sunday. In the absence of an agreement, further layoffs could be prevented and the current ones reversed if voters approve a new parcel tax in November, according to the proposal by Quan, Brunner, De La Fuente and Kernighan.