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.

Play With Oakland Budget Challenge

Worth your time!  Take a few minutes and play with the Oakland Budget Challenge model, available online.  Through this model, you are able to make high-level cuts in department spending or select ways to increase tax revenues.

To close the $70.8 million budget gap in 2009-2010, you could maximize the choices and end up with a $3.1 million surplus.  Throw in the voter-approved increase in sales tax, however, and you see another $8 or $16 million surplus.  We wish it were that easy.

Oakland - Maxed Model

Some of the options don’t feel realistic, especially cuts to essential police or fire protection.  Yes, it’s possible to save $20 million here or there…but we think this feels like a Hobson’s choice:

Hobson’s choice (noun) – the choice of taking either that which is offered or nothing; the absence of a real alternative.  Origin:  1640-50; after Thomas Hobson (1544-1631), of Cambridge, England, who rented horses and gave his customer only one choice, that of the horse nearest the stable door.  (Random House)

We like the educational benefits. The budget model is a fun tool that’s simple to use.  You put in your preferences and see the gap closing along the way.  When you go back to change options, the differences are shown as well.

When complete, you see overall gap closure, major areas versus your plan, and even pie chart allocations.  I think all civic-minded Montclarions should try this model – and even your high school kids would learn something here.

Yet decisions are more difficult. By definition, this model is only a representation of Oakland’s budget challenges.  The choices are real, and decisions must be made by the City Council right now.

We wonder what’s underneath the hood overall, from line item expenses to cash flows.  Where are the cuts related to compensation, travel, health, profit sharing (pension) and other cross-departmental expenses?  How do the different departments compare, when looking at their expense mixes?

We know that a single model can’t do everything, and it needs to be simple for constituent appeal.  We hope the City Council representatives dive into the numbers a bit more thoroughly – it’s hard to tell from this far away.

Stadium Seats To Oakland’s Budget

Did you know there are some stadium seats now available to watch Oakland’s budgeting process?  There are three opportunities to join the Budget Advisory Committee (BAC) for the City.

Keep in mind this is a citizen’s group which can make suggestions and recommendations, yet has no decision-making authority.  It’s not entirely clear what, if any, influence this committee has on the inner workings of the City Council.

BAC Recommendations 2008-2009

In this June report, the BAC members comment on mid-term budgeting efforts.  They received the Mayor’s recommendations and studied them a bit.  While they made a few fiscally prudent comments, they primarily requested more time, details and options.

With all the current budget travails underway, it still might be interesting to join the BAC and see how the budget processes unfold.  This is your chance to become an appointed observer and reviewer of the longer-term planning efforts too.

The BAC is comprised of 15 citizens who hold these seats representing city districts, a few other committees and the mayor.  In District 4, Sara Wynne occupies our local seat.

Currently there are three (of four) seats that are appointed by Mayor Dellums, and you’re welcome to apply by reaching legislative analyst Sabrina Landreth – and letting her know why you’re interested and qualified to serve a two-year term at: slandreth@oaklandnet.com.

Do Oakland Closures Save Enough Money?

The City of Oakland will save *a little* money by closing its offices one day/month.  We seem to be timid about asking city workers to feel the pain, though.

On the day before Thanksgiving, the City of Oakland will shut down all non-essential services.  Our police and fire departments stay opened, along with Head Start and a few other places.

Shut Happens

Last week, the Oakland Tribune confirmed these monthly closures through June, as well as regularly scheduled closures between Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

There are also cuts in police overtime, five percent reductions in base pay, and $430k savings from the Mayor’s Office.  There’s no question all these actions will help, as every penny matters now.

However I’m an advocate for cutting back further. Start by looking at Silicon Valley as an example, where many engineers and knowledge workers toil away.  These tech sector employees aren’t exactly landed gentry anymore.

Since the cold winter arrived last month, Silicon Valley managers and staffers have been laid off in droves while others have taken large cuts in take-home pay.  Everything is slowing and cash must be conserved – and these businesses cannot operate with Oakland-like deficits.

With that in mind, it’s tough to say that Oakland has gone far enough. I’m unable to inspect city salaries, yet understand (but cannot verify) that we pay pretty well compared to other cities.  Oakland is almost treating employment like an entitlement program.

City workers don’t seem to be giving up much, yet.  With offices closed one day per month, these workers will sacrifice 1/30th of their pay.  They should be able to keep their health and other benefits without problems.

So while I’m pleased that Oakland’s taking some steps to conserve, they could cut more deeply like their private industry counterparts.  Is this simplistic?  Do you agree?

Oakland Park Rangers Nearly Extinct

It’s true that the Oakland Park Rangers are on the endangered species list.  There are three rangers now, who can’t possibly roam around the 120+ parks and rec centers throughout the city.

Ranger Mark Oliver is one of the endangered rangers, who’s been keeping Oakland parks safe for the past 21 years.  “That’s our primary responsibility” explained Oliver, “so that moms, kids, daddies and senior citizens, when they go out to use the parks, they can feel safe.”

The park ranger unit was founded back in 1946, and staffed at least 20 rangers just seven years ago.  Most recently, the unit had eight ranger positions and one records specialist.  With the latest budget travails, there are now three lone rangers.

According to an e-mail sent to “supporters of safe parks” this afternoon, these rangers will do the best they can with their remaining 15 shifts.  They will be working weekdays but not on Saturdays, Sundays, Holidays or night-time shifts.  If rangers are sick or on vacation, there won’t be back-ups.

Last week, I took a quick hike at Joaquin Miller Park and visited the Ranger Station.  It’s like visiting a neglected attic there, with old exhibits about Miller, and a sign saying the ranger’s office is closed.  Very sad vibe, even though I understand that staffing field offices is a luxury.

At least for Joaquin Miller Park and other heavily-used destinations, I wonder if we should develop even stronger volunteer efforts.  The Ranger Unit says they are looking for volunteers for these duties:  Citizens on Patrol, Bicycle Patrol, Mounted Patrol, Field Office Representative, and Special Events.

Is there a ranger left to organize volunteer efforts?  Try visiting the Ranger Station (map) or else calling 510-482-7888 weekdays.  We often clean up parks but don’t think much about helping with safety matters.

Which Community Programs Live?

Civic-minded Oaklanders typically support and vote for community programs that help kids, elderly and everyone in between.  This seems rather natural to do, but now our choices aren’t that cut and dry.

On the November ballot, there’s something called Measure OO, which ensures funding for kids’ after-school programs and more.  This measure effectively “earmarks” $26 million annually in the city budget.

Why Vote For Or Against OO:

Vote For: Advocates say the programs must be secured, since they help kids focus on their schooling and futures.  According to one supporter, “As someone who has worked for Oakland public after-school programs, if Measure OO doesn’t pass, we lose most of our funding.  If it passes, we will get 2.5% of the budget – but if it doesn’t pass, we lose even the 1% that we are getting now.”  (lucille.two27)

Vote Against: Opponents appreciate the programs, yet reject the budgeting tactics.  “The City Council already has extended the original funding for an additional 12 years.  Measure OO proposes to increase the funding beyond the current level, and to do so forever.  What other program is getting its budget doubled in this time of big budget cuts?”  (League of Women’s Voters)

From a financial perspective, the measure would require Oakland to allocate $26 million in perpetuity, before any other programs are budgeted.  It actually increases city funding from 2.5% to 5% of the budget.  Meanwhile, our City Council has to make 15% worth of cuts to the overall budget – so this doesn’t add up.

Hobson’s Choices:

There’s no question that other worthwhile social programs, for kids and adults, would get whittled away.  Here are likely candidates, along with their current budgets:  public libraries ($12.3m); parks & recreation programs ($14.7m); human services for families/elderly ($6.75m); and even the Oakland museum ($6.4m).

We have difficult trade-offs to consider here.  Who’s more worthy?  Kids who attend after-school programs versus others who visit local libraries?  I believe libraries provide a terrific oasis as well, including access to the internet, and friendly faces willing to help.  The same might be said for all the park programs, which appeal to kids too.

In more stable economic times, we would all jump at securing funding for community programs.  However it’s more important to maintain some flexibility and ensure the survival of other city resources, too.  This measure takes away our freedom to choose.

More Insights:  Please click on comments, discussing how Kids First programs are funded (!) without passage of Measure OO.