Union protest overwhelms early Oakland City Council budget talks
on April 3, 2013
As the city gets ready to tackle a new two-year budget, councilmembers heard a presentation on Oakland’s fiscal future at Tuesday’s city council meeting. Whoops, jeers and the sound of a cowbell punctuated the meeting, and before the council could hear the presentation, they heard from dozens of angry union members as chants of “Enough is enough!” from audience members stalled proceedings more than once.
The meeting focused on budget talk, and the main item on the agenda was a presentation by City Administrator Deanna Santana that gave an overview of past and current budget conditions. Santana said that after 6 years of severe shortfalls, which resulted in layoffs, mandatory staff furloughs and cuts to most city departments, the budget was more stable, but the city still faces a deficit ranging from roughly $19 million to 26 million, depending on how the city approaches police staffing, for fiscal year 2013. That deficit is expected to increase over the coming years. But, she pointed out, there have been no new layoffs since last summer and some city services are being restored.
An hour before the meeting started, over a hundred workers from local unions representing public services employees gathered in front of City Hall to protest. The city’s three major non-public safety unions are negotiating new contracts this year, and union leaders said they’ve seen the city’s financial forecast and allege that officials are downplaying revenue increases in a move to undercut them at the negotiating table.
After making contract concessions for half a decade during the most severe points in the city’s budget crisis, they’re not giving any more, they said. “We’re all here fighting for a fair contract,” said Stennis Raymond, an SEIU (Service Employees International Union) member and maintenance mechanic for the city. “We’ve given up a lot the last few years.” Now that the city is “in the black,” he said, he wants to see it reflected in his paycheck.
Union leaders also said they felt that financing the Oakland Police Department is monopolizing a large piece of the city budget. “It’s pretty unconscionable to throw everything to the police,” said Chris Candell, vice president of IFPTE (International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers) Local 21. He said that public service workers are integral to public safety; as a building inspector he helps ensure homes are safe, he said, and other public employees like teachers and librarians play a role in preventing problems. “Cops come in and mop up afterwards. They’re reactive; we’re proactive,” he said.
As the meeting began, bodies packed the council chambers and the galleries upstairs. When the councilmembers had taken their seats, the room broke out in a round of “Enough is enough!” The Pledge of Allegiance segued into a cacophony of outbursts of “And justice for all! And justice for all! We want justice!” People began to chant “No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace.” There was more yelling and more cowbell.
People waved signs reading “No more concessions. No more takeaways.” Others hung ones that read “We’ve paid our share enough” from the balcony. Many people were wearing purple SEIU 1021 shirts featuring a cobra on the back with the warning “Will strike when provoked,” which were embellished with red, heart-shaped “Oakland library” stickers.
Council President Pat Kernighan struggled to impose order. “With this many speakers it’s going to have to be one minute per speaker,” she started.
“Nooooo! Boooooo!” people yelled. “Your time is up! Take a pay cut then! Furlough!”
Kernighan kept trying “We’re trying to facilitate this so—”
“Stop talking!” someone yelled.
As Kernighan attempted to clarify when and for how long members of the public would speak, people grew impatient. District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks and Kernighan exchanged some terse words and the crowd seized on it. Another round of “Enough is enough!” drowned Kernighan out.
Finally the public forum started. Most of the speakers were workers, who believe the city’s budget projections purposely underestimate revenue. They point to the rebounding real estate market and the city’s own figures as proof that the economic climate has improved, but fear the city will use budget woes as a ploy to lowball them in contract negotiations. Workers say they’ve done their share to help, while the city has failed to curb wasteful spending by the police department. They’re pushing for the “civilianization” of administrative police jobs as one way to save money, and question the city’s plan to significantly increase police staffing levels.
“We remember when you removed 12 days from our work week without pay,” said Dwight McElroy, SEIU Local 1021 chapter president, referring to furlough days. “We are not anti-police, but we are extremely pro-proportioning of resources. We know city has plans to continue to take from us. We’ve given back at least 9 percent of our salaries. … My coworkers and myself make 25 percent less than we made in 2007.”
As he finished someone in the balcony yelled, “Take your hands out my pockets!” at the council.
Al Marshall, another Local 1021 member, spoke next. He said he’s worked in the city for 25 years. As he talked about his financial struggles over the past few years he paused, tried to suppress his tears, and banged his fist on the podium. Two big purple-shirted men put their arms around Marshall and he continued, voice cracking. “I’ve given the city back one quarter of my salary in furlough days,” he said. “I did this so the city could balance its budget. I think the roles need to reverse … Your budget report is not honest. They city continues to downplay Oakland’s growth. … Be fair to the workforce. You owe it to the workers who have sacrificed their quality of life.”
After dozens of speakers, Santana began her presentation. She said the city had faced shortfalls totaling nearly $318 million over the last six years, which led to a 20 percent reduction in the city’s full-time workforce, and major cuts to internal service departments in an effort to sustain front-line services. During the same period, the sworn OPD workforce was reduced 27 percent and the civilian OPD workforce was reduced 34 percent, Santana said. Community services also saw significant cuts. Library hours were limited to five days per week from six and recreation center hours were reduced—just about every other service suffered, from programs for the homeless to tree trimming and street repair.
The cuts weren’t enough, so city employees took salary cuts, vacation reductions and the city imposed furlough days. Things leveled out in July, 2012, Santana said, when for the first time in four years, there were no new cuts or layoffs. The city restored some services and funded an additional police training academy.
Santana touched on a few of the challenges that lay ahead, but a subsequent presentation by Andrew Murray of the city’s budget office went into detail. He presented the city’s 2013 to 2018 five-year forecast. Since 2003, the council has required forecasting, he said, with the intention of putting current decisions into a long-term context. The forecast is an estimate of future fiscal conditions based on a set of assumptions; it’s an initial step in understand budget conditions. He emphasized that it is only an estimate, not an authorized spending plan. “It’s a necessary first step in getting on same page,” Murray said. “The point is to help the city make an informed decision.” He added a caveat: “It can’t be precise because we’re being asked to tell the future.”
His office’s forecast concludes that the city’s expenditure increases will outpace revenues, though revenue is coming in higher than anticipated and is expected to grow at modest but steady rate. Murray listed higher pension costs, higher police academy costs, ongoing police staffing costs, and higher internal staffing costs as key reasons for growing expenditures. He projected a shortfall starting at $14.5 million in 2013 and ballooning to $48 million by 2018.
After Murray’s talk the floor was opened for public comment. David Kernsten, a researcher for SEIU Local 1021, challenged the forecast figures. He claimed the forecast uses outdated revenue figures and “questionable accounting practices.” He said officials failed to consider one-time revenue and grant money and questioned the OPD budget figures and academy numbers listed in the report. “I think we should have a more detailed conversation when the budget comes out,” he said.
As the councilmembers discussed the presentations, they echoed Kernsten’s call for circumspect action. “I think numbers may come in higher than projected,” at-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan said, “but I want to respect that we don’t know.”
In a nod to the unions she suggested a bonus system based on shared prosperity, but provided few details. She suggested the system might create “additional bonus based on what comes in so we can deal with uncertainty together and share in success.”
The councilmembers acknowledged the sacrifices made by the city’s workers over the past few years and discussed the need to fund both police services and community services. “How do we become a safer city if we do not give equal consideration to the things that support a safety net?” asked District 3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson-McElhaney. “That is our libraries, our parks and making sure we are partnering with our schools.”
Mayor Quan will release a proposed budget later this month.
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