Back in April we first reported on the budget crisis in Oakland's General Fund. This Thursday, June 24, the Council will need to decide what measures will be put up to a vote at the November ballot in an attempt to close the $32 million budget gap.

The passing of these tax measures requires a hard to get two-thirds majority vote and even with its passing, cuts will still need to be made across all departments. The members of the City Council Finance Committee – Jane Brunner, Jean Quan, Larry Reid – have held three community budget meetings to explain the decisions they're faced with and to hear suggestions from residents. 

The enormous deficit, its ties to Measure Y programs and its affect on public safety make this an incredibly emotional topic for Oakland's residents as was evident from flared tempers at the last community gathering held at the Peralta Elementary Community Budget Meetings. Over the past few years, we have seen innovative violence prevention programs and a reinforced police force cause a 16 percent drop in violent crime. It's easy to see why it's unconscionable to many residents that the city is even consider laying off more than 200 officers and cutting back on these new programs. Unfortunately, at this point, these are no longer considerations – they are hard choices that need to be made in order to balance the budget, as is required by law. 

Is Chapter 9 an option?

Ah, the B-word. Bankruptcy. “The city of Vallejo did it, so why can't we?” asked several speakers. Administrator Dan Lindheim pointed out that bankruptcy would potentially prevent the city from being able to take out loans for cash flow and production and would ultimately place budget powers in the hands of a judge rather than the City Council. 

Measure Y needs a fix

Measure Y is closely tied in with the General Fund by requiring a minimum of 739 officers to be on on the force to start receiving funds. Because of this, if even one police officer is laid off, it triggers layoffs of 63 Measure Y funded officers before the city starts saving any money.

Furthermore, the Fire Department contract has minimum staffing requirements, and the loss of Measure Y revenue will mean the loss of $4 million in the Fire Department, which due to these requirements, the city will have no choice but to make up. Yep, you guessed it – by laying off more police officers.

Both Councilwomen Quan and Brunner expressed hopes that a Measure Y fix can be passed, which would eliminate the requirement of 739 officers. The city estimates that this would save the jobs of 87 officers and would keep successful violence prevention problems – which as key to preventing crime – from occurring in the first place.

Read more about this in our previous article on Measure Y

Are we negotiating with the police union?

Administrator Lindheim will attempt to negotiate with the police union in order to get sworn staff to start contributing to their pension, although it was clear that he is not optimistic about these talks. However, Wilson Riles, a former council member passed on a message from the police department that emphasized the necessity for a long term financial plan for the city. Rather than one-year fixes, “The police are wiling to give, but they need to see that the city is doing their job. I'm simply relaying what I heard from the department.”

What about selling city property?

In April budget talks, several council members talked about the possibility of selling the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center and the Lake Chalet Golf Course. This also is part of Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente's budget proposal. Brunner, Quan and Lindheim were all against the idea because these sales would be short, as it is not a great time to sell property, and most of all, these would be one time fixes.

Where is our rainy day fund?

When Dellums came into office in 2006, the city had $70 million in a reserve or “slush” fund, but over the past three years, that fund has been spent down to only $10 million in order to stave off police layoffs. This year, layoffs cannot be avoided.

“Get your burglar alarms, get your guns ready, because the police is going to need all the help they can get,” said Josephine Lee, born and raised in Oakland and a resident for 85 years.

Who's got better ideas?

Greg Harlan, an Oakland mayoral candidate, criticized Brunner's statement about having to cut spending down to the bone. “You have to bring down those [city employee] compensations,” he said, “You have to add to the bone, not cut from it. Libraries, museums and programs are a necessity in a city.”

“How do you get crime? You get crime when you have people who don't know anything,” said Debra Temple, appealing to improving our public education system as a means of addressing the public safety issue, “When the hills people care about the schools in the flatlands, then we can be the city we keep faking about, because the act that we're putting on now – it's Oscar worthy.”

Read Council President Brunner's budget proposal here.

A citizen organization Make Oakland Better Now! held their own budget meeting last Saturday, at which they planned to put together a budget proposal that they will present to City Council on Thursday. 

Would you like to take a stab at balancing the budget yourself? The city challenges you to try at www.oaklandbudgetchallenge.com.

The budget, possible solutions and measures will be discussed at this Thursday's Council Meeting at 5:30pm at City Hall. The budget crisis affects all of us, so come let your voice be heard!