At packed budget meeting, a debate over the fate of libraries, city services
on May 27, 2011
Equipped with whistles, banners and plastic noisemakers, hundreds of people crammed into the City Council Chambers on Thursday evening to voice their concerns about the city’s proposed budget cuts at a special hearing held by the city officials. The crowd was so large that many had to be relocated to another hearing room for safety reasons.
Following a brief introduction of the city’s projected budget deficit ($143 million in the next two fiscal years), the hearing began with presentations given by directors of the Public Library, the Department of Human Services and the Office of Parks and Recreation—all potentially facing severe cuts.
“This is how our library system would look under Option A, ” said library director Carmen Martinez, who was showing the crowd a city map with only four of its current 17 libraries marked as open. The “all cuts” budget option, or Option A, is one of the three budget scenarios proposed by Mayor Jean Quan last month. It assumes that in the coming years there would be no new revenues—including none from a proposed five-year $80 parcel tax—and no additional city employee concessions. Under this scenario, closures of fire stations, libraries, senior services and recreation facilities would be inevitable.
Option B, which takes more employee concessions into consideration, would still result in some reductions of public services. Option C, which assumes that the parcel tax will pass and employees will make some concessions, allows all senior centers and libraries to remain open and is the mayor’s preferred version.
The City Council delayed a mail-in vote on the parcel tax proposed by the mayor last month. According to a newsletter sent by the mayor’s office this Monday, even if the parcel tax passes in August, which is the earliest date possible for a vote, the city will likely have to lay off employees and cut programs in July and August, since the new fiscal year begins at the end of June.
More than 50 residents, each given one minute to address the city officials, spoke after the presentations and the majority of them were there to support the public libraries.
“I counted the number of programs [the public libraries] are offering this month—225,” said Helen Bloch, a children’s librarian whose speech elicited a burst of applause. Bloch said the programs in the libraries are valuable to the community educationally and economically, as well as socially. “Cutting any sort of libraries might be penny wise but it is pound foolish,” she said.
Other library supporters, including several high school students, also testified to ask the council to save the libraries, saying that they “cost two percent of the city’s general fund but serve 50 percent of its people.” Many also argued that libraries shouldn’t be cut while the Oakland police officers, whose service takes up more than 40 percent of the general fund, are not contributing as much to their pension funds as other public employees.
“The budget was presented in such a way that it looks like we have choices,” said District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel after the participants’ comments. “[But] we can’t obligate police and fire to make contributions; we can’t balance the budget saying maybe the public will vote for this ballot measure even if we get the council to put it on a ballot.”
Nadel said the city should prepare for the worst situation and make Option A “as least painful as possible.” For example, if the closure of libraries does happen, Nadel said, she would try to maintain some of their services such as the Second Start, a program that aims to eliminate adult literacy.
“I am not going to look at [Option] B until we sign the agreements with all of the unions [to agree to contribute], so we’re stuck at this level with A,” said District 1 Councilmember Jane Brunner. Brunner said she appreciated the employees who had given back 10 percent of their salaries in the past and “this year it’s going to have to be everybody.”
“It’s a nightmare to think that we’ll have to close libraries,” said District 4 Councilmember Patricia Kernighan, who assumes “some concessions will be made” and said that she will prioritize the libraries if the employees pitch in to make concessions. However Kernighan said if the city is left with Option A, the council will be “looking at doing some very serious things”, including the possibility of declaring a “state of fiscal emergency,” as another Bay Area city—San Jose—is doing right now.
“We would be left with no choices,” Kernighan said.
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