After Make Oakland Better Now! asked locals what steps should be taken to close the City of Oakland’s budget gap, we wondered what would happen next. Finding another $9 million-plus this fiscal year isn’t an easy task for novices or experts, but our opinions do matter.
Well, the people have spoken: at least 140 survey-takers shared their opinions. According to Bruce Nye, who heads MOBN!, the results boiled down to making cuts as equally as possible. However police and public safety were functions that needed protection, in the short term.
MOBN! intended to share Oaklanders’ priorities with the City Council before they met on budget decisions. Thus a recommendations letter was emailed to Council members yesterday, which first acknowledged constraints in the short-term and then provided specific direction signals.
Don’t touch public safety:
- The topic of reducing sworn law enforcement personnel should be off the table.
- The minimal savings that could be achieved through reducing civilian personnel in the Oakland Police Department constitute a false economy.
- The city’s immediate fiscal problems cannot, for the most part, be solved by eliminating programs.
Do share the pain elsewhere:
- Oakland must balance its budget with significant, across-the-board reductions in personnel costs in every non-public safety function in the city.
- Combined salary and benefit costs are far out of line with the market, and far exceed what the city can afford.
- Accomplish [cuts] through a very wrenching combination of lay-offs, salary reductions, more early retirements, and a major restructuring of benefits.
- While even severe cuts to the council’s and mayor’s offices (and to employee parking) would provide only minimal benefit…it is a representative message to deliver.
Next up? We suggest you mark your calendars for February 16th, when the City Council will meet and wrestle with gap-closure choices. If you tune into KTOP (Comcast Channel 10) at 5pm, then you’ll see this cliffhanger play out all night.
Here’s the letter that Make Oakland Better Now! emailed to the Oakland City Council:
January 29, 2010
Dear President Brunner and Council Members:
Make Oakland Better Now! (MOBN!) is a grass-roots citizens organization dedicated to improving the City of Oakland in the areas of public safety, public works, accountability and transparency in city government. Formed in mid-2009, we have more than 400 members and are determined to make sure that this year’s city election involves full debates on these issues.
Last fall, as you know, staff reported a nearly $19 million general purpose fund budget shortfall for the remainder of fiscal year 2009-2010 and a $25 million deficit for 2010-2011. At that time, it became apparent that the city’s financial situation was sufficiently dire that almost any proposals we might make in our core areas of interest would be rendered impossible by the city’s need to solve its financial problems. Accordingly, we began to turn our focus to the city’s budget.
From the time of the budget director’s first report to the present, we have become increasingly alarmed as the city’s ongoing delay in addressing these problems has left it with few options. Specifically,
- Our review of the general purpose fund portion of the budget suggests that even the most drastic, wholesale program cuts and eliminations would be insufficient to bridge the gap.
- While council was able to close $10 million of the gap for this year with some bookkeeping adjustments and one-time revenues (thus requiring an exemption from the recently passed policy prohibiting the use of such revenues for operational expenses), the budget director’s analysis makes it clear that with each day of inaction, the city is left with a smaller remaining amount of unspent funds from which to make spending reductions.
- While some members of the council have speculated about a parcel tax or bond issue, such sources of revenues will be of no help for this fiscal year. And the mood in the community toward taxes (and city government in general) make such measures problematic for future years as well.
- Finally, if the council eventually decides that lay-offs are necessary (as we believe it must, for reasons discussed below), its WARN obligations are such that little significant benefit can be realized from job eliminations until mid-April at the very earliest.
At a meeting held on January 11 and in a follow-up on-line membership survey, MOBN! members were asked to state their preferences among the difficult choices for cutting the city’s expenses. Nearly 140 members voted. At our meeting, and in on-line comments, members discussed a variety of issues and answers, and while there was no unanimity, a significant majority agreed as follows:
- The topic of reducing sworn law enforcement personnel should be off the table. Given the city’s ongoing public safety crisis, as well as the constraints of Measure Y and the recently received three year COPS grant, the difficult task of the city is to maintain sworn staffing levels at the authorized level. Since no cost savings would be realized until more than 100 positions were eliminated, and this sort of reduction is unacceptable to just about everyone, public statements by public officials concerning the supposed choice between laying off police officers and voter approval of new tax measures adds little of value to the public debate.
- The minimal savings that could be achieved through reducing civilian personnel in the Oakland Police Department constitute a false economy. The department desperately needs more civilian police dispatchers, not fewer. Neighborhood Services Coordinators provide an essential link between communities and the department. And personnel reductions in other department functions would likely result in the department filling those functions with sworn personnel who should be on the street fighting crime. In short, MOBN! supports more, not less civilianization.
- The city’s immediate fiscal problems cannot, for the most part, be solved by eliminating programs. While there certainly are city operations bearing little or no relationship to the city’s core responsibilities (e.g., golf courses, Kaiser Auditorium, etc.), our analysis indicates that wholesale program eliminations, even in the areas of Parks and Recreation, City Attorney Neighborhood functions, NSC’s, senior services, Oaklanders’ Assistance Center, etc. would be insufficient to bridge the 2009-10 and 2010-11 budget gaps.
At our January 11 meeting and thereafter, MOBN! leadership has stressed its belief that little is gained by “bashing” the council, and that the dialogue at this critical time has to be a respectful one. Nonetheless, there is a strong belief among MOBN! members that the city council and mayor have shown a lack of mindfulness to the fiscal responsibilities they owe to all Oaklanders. We heard and received many comments about the mayor’s salary and limousine, and about the recently revealed cost of free city employee parking. While even severe cuts to the council’s and mayor’s offices (and to employee parking) would provide only minimal benefit during the balancing process, council and the mayor will have to accept substantial and immediate budget reductions of their own departments if hope to convince Oaklanders that they are serious about budget balancing.
MOBN! believes that Oakland’s combined salary and benefit costs are far out of line with the market, and far exceed what the city can afford. This belief seems amply supported by the city’s own 2008 comparative study of seventy non-safety classification compensation in the thirteen largest Bay Area city and county governments. As the council knows, this study showed that on average, Oakland’s salary plus benefit levels for these classifications exceeded the Bay Area median by 12.2% (with a range of differences from Construction Inspection Supervisor at +34.52% to -11.5% for Neighborhood Services Coordinators). Furthermore, city employee cost of living increases from 2002 to 2007 exceeded actual increases in the CPI during that time by more than 10%. While the recent small changes in city pension contributions have slightly narrowed the gap between Oakland and other municipal and county governments, Oakland still leads the pack.
MOBN! believes that for both the current and next fiscal year, Oakland must balance its budget with significant, across-the-board reductions in personnel costs in every non-public safety function in the city. This will have to be accomplished through a very wrenching combination of lay-offs, salary reductions, more early retirements, and a major restructuring of benefits. Although a majority of MOBN! members do not support additional furlough days – which penalize Oaklanders by reducing the days city services are available – we realize that the city’s options between now and the end of Fiscal Year 2009-10 are very limited, and support whatever personnel cost reduction balancing measures are feasible provided that the city accomplishes these measures with department-spanning, across-the-board balancing measures, and not simply program elimination.
Once the immediate reductions have been achieved, MOBN! believes that the city council must immediately proceed to address 2010-11. Because the city cannot do this without significant, long-term staff reductions, we urge the city to immediately meet its pre-layoff obligations under its MOUs and State and Federal WARN acts. Because the city will also need to obtain concessions from the unions, we urge the city to begin negotiations with labor representatives now, if it has not done so already.
Most importantly, we urge the city to begin the painful process of identifying and implementing balancing adjustments for the next fiscal year using reality based, worst-case scenario assumptions, while avoiding the “band-aid” approach of funding operating expenses through speculative revenue sources (such as the hoped-for Coliseum parking tax) one-time income sources, or optimistic assumptions about unspecified departmental expense cuts. The current fiscal crisis was caused, in part, by such income expectations and non-specific, wished-for expense reductions.
MOBN! takes no position at this time on the wisdom of any possible revenue-raising ballot measure. A majority (indeed, more than 70%) of MOBN! members have indicated that if such a ballot measure passed, they would support spending the revenue for public safety, and a near-majority plurality supports using such funds for police department civilianization. MOBN! members support no other increased spending.
Furthermore, MOBN! believes that a budget that is balanced on the basis of such a measure, which may or may not pass, is a recipe for civic disaster. Accordingly, council must implement personnel reductions that balance the budget based on realistic revenue assumptions, not on proposed ballot measures or other revenue-generating actions that may or may not come to fruition.
Very truly yours,
For Make Oakland Better Now!