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.

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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?

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.

Your Hills Budget Meeting, Monday at 7pm

Before the City of Oakland makes its final budget cuts, there’s one opportunity for you to participate in the discussion.  Our city rep, Jean Quan, organized a meeting for District 4 constituents tonight at 7pm, in the Redwood Heights Recreation Center (map).

Given the Oakland budget gap, this is an important opportunity to discuss where the cuts should be and should not be made.  Among other city services, our well-loved parks and libraries are at risk – and we must provide guidance in these areas.

To understand the current budget, this chart (above) shows how funds are distributed to each department.  There’s not much to work with, with some 64% that gets directed to the police and fire departments.

Late last month, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums issued a full report covering the budget and where the city recommends cutbacks.  According to the report, Dellums and his team explain that “having only $110 million in discretionary budget leaves little flexibility when attempting to eliminate a $37.4 million shortfall.”

Just like private industry, the recommendations to freeze hiring, lay off current staff, minimize salary increases, and shorten the work weeks are appropriate – if painful – steps to close the gap.

Mark Zinns, who supervises Montclair Park, confirms the cuts:  “Yes it’s true that Montclair Recreation Center and Park is facing some serious cut-backs because of the city’s financial crisis.”  He expects to shutter the Rec Center every Friday, and make cuts/layoffs to maintenance, gardening and recreation staff.

The City also plans to eliminate the remaining handful of park rangers, who specialize in park safety.  This past weekend, for example, Joaquin Miller was closed due to high winds and fire danger.  Are the replacement beat cops, who earn more than the rangers, ready to handle new assignments?

Finally, local libraries are under examination – and Montclair’s hours and programs are at risk too.  No one needs to argue about the educational resources available both online and on the shelves.  Our storybook library has been a source of pride for years, and it should stay opened six days/week.

Cutting back on parks and libraries doesn’t solve the bigger budget gap, because their numbers are quite small.  As you can see, only six percent of the budget is spent on them.  While there’s no question that some minor reductions could be made, we have to make sure that these civic resources don’t get decimated.

We live in interesting times.  Keep in mind that the WPA was busy building up these neighborhood gems during the Great Depression, and now we are thinking they are places not worthy of sufficient resources with this economic downturn.