How The Budget Pit Feels

On Monday eve, we were able to hear about Oakland’s budget from one City Hall insider.  Oakland’s budget director, Cheryl Taylor, patiently reviewed the major points of the general purposed fund by department – and what’s left for the waning 2009-2010 fiscal year.

To us, it felt like a mining pit.  We’re already digging below ground level, with different parts of the budget carved from the earth and given away.  And at some point, we stop seeing any ground beneath our collective feet.  Nice metaphor, we think.

Although seemingly untenable, there must be another $10.5 million saved before this year’s over.  At least Director Taylor was clear about the challenges.   If we understood correctly, then only 12 percent of the general funds are even available.  Plus only a portion of that $52 million is game since we’re well into the fiscal year.

Taylor put things in perspective when recalling Oakland’s boom and bust cycle.  A while ago, we used to have “three people to do one job,” she explained.  “Now there’s one person to do three jobs.”  It’s not easy to figure out how to save and simultaneously maintain government services.

The Monday meeting enabled civilians like us to suggest or react to possibilities.  No one was crying “save my piece of the pie” here.  Instead, people were soberly considering how public safety or other services might be severed during the recession.

Beyond this fiscal year, there were very interesting rays of hope.  One idea was that work currently done by sworn officers might be civilianized.  Another suggestion was to dive into all the suppliers and contracts again, given these economic times.  And privatizing several city services or resources was raised as well.

However, the task at hand was solvency today.  Make Oakland Better Now!, a citizen initiative, organized this week’s meeting to identify and assess what could be done right now.  After all, the  City Council will be forced to find the remaining millions soon – and we might as well offer our two cents.

Oakland, Consider Four-Day Week

Here’s a bright idea!  To deliver additional budget savings, the City of Oakland might consider Monday-Thursday office hours.  Stay with us, because the idea’s not that original or far-fetched.

We just read about Utah state government workers, who clock ten-hour days and get paid for their 40-hour weeks.  The difference is their offices are shuttered and they don’t work on Fridays.  In return, the state saves money.

Employee Punch Card

How has this experiment worked for Utah?  Swimmingly, but not for the reasons that were originally envisioned about energy savings.  Instead, the major benefit has been overtime pay!  Apparently when workers complete their ten hours shifts, they feel like going home.

All told, Utah has saved $500k in energy bills, $200k in janitorial services and a whopping $4.1 million in overtime payments.  We don’t know the overall percentage of the state budget saved, but this still sounds like a decent option to us.  Other states are trying this out as well, such as Washington and Hawaii.

The City of Oakland has already mandated one day/month closures, and that’s one way to save bucks.  It wouldn’t be hard to imagine having Friday closures beyond the current schedule.  Also the extended hours on other weekdays would likely be viewed as a convenience and welcomed by Oaklanders.

We know that some city jobs already follow longer-shift patterns, and that police, fire and other emergency services must be available after-hours.  But this four-day week would be different and more widespread.  The hours for many city services are truly fungible.

So let’s continue to get creative with our budgeting efforts.  We’re not sure if this scheduling option was ever tossed around during earlier discussions, but think it’s worthy of City Council time and consideration.

Some Civic Things Are Budgeted

Right now, the City of Oakland is making all kinds of news with our budget shortfalls.  Like every major metro area, we are dealing with huge gaps and have to get to some final and solvent budget.

Mayor Ron Dellums’ first shot has been poured over and worked through by the City Council.  Beyond the big nut with police funding, four Council representatives have recommended many, many changes – including some civic-minded things that are now budgeted.

Oakland City Officials

We’re betting that you didn’t look at what our council rep, Jean Quan, and her colleagues adjusted in their budget.  It seems like Montclarions are so fed up that even paying attention to the shortfalls and responses can be headache-inducing, but some of our hot-button issues have been addressed:

  • Branch libraries stay open five days a week – While we won’t have six days a week, these hours are certainly better than two or three days which had been proposed by the mayor.  (It will be nice for Montclair to re-open on July 5th, finally.)
  • Two park ranger positions stay in place – There’s been lots of noise from Montclarions, and rightfully so.   This current staffing isn’t ideal, but we will take something rather than nothing!  We hope the rangers will attend to Joaquin Miller, Shepherd, Dimond and other key spots over the summer.
  • Twelve public workers keep their jobs – As Mother Nature takes its toll, it’s good to see four workers handling trees.  Of course, visitors also take their toll on our city parks and eight maintenance workers will be saved too.  This isn’t full-force, so volunteers are still needed to keep parks clean.
  • The CORE program will live on – Some sanity prevails, and the safety coordinator will still be training citizens in handling all the typical Oakland disasters.  We’re overdue for both fires and earthquakes, so it’s important that neighbors know what to do.  Apparently, the fire department agrees now.

What’s next?  The “first reading of the ordinances” takes place this Tuesday, June 16th at 6pm, in the City Council chambers.  This means the Council’s budget motion is reviewed at that session.  There’s a second reading scheduled for June 30th, which would include revisions and changes.

Meanwhile, the wheels spin slowly but sometime the budget does have to get done – even without clear understanding of the impacts from federal, state and county levels.

Budget Matter: Keep Park Rangers Alive

Another budget head-shaker?  It sure looks like the Oakland Park Rangers will die, following their slow fade over the past few years.

The Friends of Oakland Rangers have been keeping up with the budgeting travails of the proud lone rangers.  There are three positions and two are currently filled.  According to Mayor Ron Dellums’ budget plan, all the positions will vanish and the Oakland Police pick up the slack.

Friends of Oakland Park Rangers

From now through July 1st, the two rangers are supposed to cover West and East Oakland.  Oddly enough, they are not supposed to focus on the central part of the city – where the largest parks are located like Dimond, Lakeside and Joaquin Miller.  The ranger station at Joaquin Miller is officially closed as well.

The Friends of Oakland Rangers are strongly advocating the City Council to keep the ranger station, fund the three ranger positions, and shift the group to Parks and Recreation.  (The rangers used to be part of the Parks department until 1992, when the Police department took ’em over.)

We’re gonna have a serious mess on our hands and will settle for something.  Even scaled back, the current rangers have been responsive and aware of what’s happening in the parks.  Now the full range of park problems will go unnoticed.  Care for an out-of-control bonfire, on a windy day?

Budget Matter: Keep CORE Alive

This Oakland budget cycle is pretty nasty, and the metaphor that comes to mind is getting blood from a stone.  One head shaker for all Oaklanders should be our CORE program, which stands for Citizens of Oakland Respond to Emergencies.

With the first responders getting hit in the Fire Department, it seems even more important to keep our CORE program live.  As you likely know, CORE trains citizens to help themselves.  Further, we are talking about a rounding error for the City of Oakland.

Oakland CORE

Who is behind the scenes?  The CORE program is essentially run by the Emergency Planning Coordinator, Kaity Booth.  Many folks have communicated with Oakland City Council members already, and there are plans afoot to speak up at tonight’s council meeting.  Even at this late stage, I think it’s worth sharing how one volunteer feels:

We are now organized, we are now focused and we now have the knowledge and confidence to effectively take care of ourselves, our families, our neighbors and our fellow Oakland citizens WHEN (not if) disaster strikes as first responders.

Oakland has a winning program in CORE and a real jewel in Kaity Booth.  As one of the recent graduates of the CORE program, I have seen Kaity in action.  She is knowledgeable, organized, supportive of the participants and her colleagues, articulate and 100% responsive.  She is the glue that holds all the great pieces of this program together.

I am impressed enough with her leadership and the CORE program that I have already volunteered as a victim and have indicated my interest to lend my training expertise to the program.

It’s a tough time, and every interest group is going to try to “save” their special areas.  The CORE program seems like a low-cost insurance policy which supports neighborhoods and blocks – plus contributes to overall civility.

June 5th Update:  Kaity Booth and her emergency planning coordinator position will not be cut by the City of Oakland.  Also the Fire Department will have some firefighters offering additional training around our city.