Two opportunities to get involved and weigh in on the future of the City budget and OUSD

I spend a lot of time trying to encourage people to pay attention to what their local government is doing. Oakland is full of energetic and politically active people working hard to make a difference on the State and Federal levels, and I think that’s awesome, and would obviously never suggest that they stop doing so. But I also think sometimes that the strong level of interest that so many Oaklanders take in fights going on in Sacramento or Washington comes at the expense of awareness of local issues.

That’s not to say that there’s nobody in town aggressively following local issues and trying to make a difference right here at home. Oakland is blessed with a fair number of people who have been doing so for many years, and I am proud to know many of them. But it’s undeniable that when you start watching or attending lots of local meetings, you pretty quickly get used to seeing all the same set of faces over and over and over again.

I’ve always thought that part of the problem is that even once someone does decide they want to work to help get Oakland back on the right track, they aren’t sure how to even go about getting involved. I am working with Becks and dto510 on a project that I hope will help address that problem at least a little bit, and hopefully I’ll be able to say more about that soon. But if you’ve been finding yourself increasingly angry and frustrated with the direction our local institutions have been taking (and I know, from reading all these comments, that many of you are), and you think you’re ready to do something about it, you don’t have to wait for me to help you out. Today, I’d like to highlight two local groups that can help you get involved, each of which conveniently has an upcoming opportunity to participate.

First, if you aren’t already a member of the League of Women Voters, I strongly recommend you join today. The League is a wonderful organization devoted to voter education and good government advocacy – work that is absolutely essential to any well functioning democracy. The League isn’t out there campaigning against taxes or for candidates or things that necessarily seem particularly sexy and exciting. But they are out there, working hard to make your government work better – their tireless advocacy for improved citywide records management is just one example. The League also sponsors monthly educational discussions about local issues, and it just so happens they’ve got one coming up on Monday!

I know a lot of you guys are interested in OUSD issues, and I often get requests from readers to write more about them. I’m not going to do that. I think that OUSD issues are really important, but I also understand that, like the City and the transit agencies I try to follow, they are also very complex. I’m pushing my limits of what I can reasonably handle just trying to keep up with the issues I already cover, and there is simply no way that I would have the time to give the school district coverage of a quality I’m comfortable with. (If you are looking for education coverage, BTW, you can find it in the Oakland Tribune, Tribune education reporter Katy Murphy’s blog The Education Report, The Oakbook, and the Great Oakland Public Schools blog.)

Anyway, for those of you are concerned about how OUSD is going to be dealing with their current funding crisis, I highly recommend attending this month’s League of Women Voters Hot Topics meeting, which will be devoted to a discussion of OUSD and the School Board. They describe it as follows:

The excellence of Oakland’s schools directly ties into the health of our city. Youth who graduate from high school with skills to continue their educations, fill jobs, and contribute to their neighborhoods will not be adding to our national reputation as a top-tier crime scene. What is the role of our school board in promoting OUSD student achievement? How does our school board support effective principals and teachers and personalized learning environments for OUSD students? LWVO invites its members and the larger community to attend this gathering. School Director and LWVO member Jody London will join us in a discussion of issues.

Education geeks should mark their calendars for the event – next Monday, January 26th, 6:30 to 8 PM at the Redwood Heights Community Center (3883 Aliso Avenue).

Even though they’ve been around like 1/100th the amount of time the League has, if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably familiar with Make Oakland Better Now! a newer, somewhat more aggressive, good government advocacy organization formed this summer. At a meeting earlier held this month at City Hall, MOB Now! invited Oakland voters to hear a presentation from budget director Cheryl Taylor about Oakland’s budget situation and options, then hosted a lively discussion among attendees about what the City Council should be doing to address the deficit. The Council will be making a decision on how to close the remaining $9 million of the City’s FY 2009-10 expected deficit in a few weeks, and, well, there aren’t a lot of options left.

There’s no doubt at this point that whatever balancing measures get taken, they’re going to be unpleasant. But which of a series of distasteful choices should the Council go with? MOB Now! founders, not content to just sit around and complain from home about being unhappy with whatever cuts get made, are determined to make a strong push for the adoption of their budget positions – whatever those end up being.

And that’s where you come in. Make Oakland Better Now! has posted an online survey soliciting feedback from Oakland residents on what type of budget reductions they think the City should be making. Eliminate Neighborhood Service Coordinators? Eliminate services for seniors and the disabled? Get rid of the Neighborhood Law Corps? Stop funding the Oakland Museum? Close the Oaklanders Assistance Center? And if there were to be a tax on the ballot, what would you want the money to go to? Police? Fire? Human services?

Like I said, none of the options are pretty. But these are the choices we have to make, so you might as well hold your nose and decide which one you hate the least. So go, take the survey now, and help MOB Now! put together their budget position. And if you decide you’d like to help them advocate for that position once they get it together, well, contact them and let them now. I’m sure they’d be thrilled with all the help they can get.

38 thoughts on “Two opportunities to get involved and weigh in on the future of the City budget and OUSD

  1. len raphael

    Not sure why MOBN survey writers didn’t give a choice for position by position, by specific dept job and compensation cuts as cf to across the board cuts. no doubt the union contracts and civil service rules would make it difficult if not impossible to pick and chose widthin a dept, but wouldn’t think that would stop making selective cuts on a dept by dept basis.

    Bruce?

  2. Ralph

    Just once, I wish someone would consult me before they schedule a budget meeting.

    Bruce, see len’s comments.

  3. David

    One quibble. Schools don’t make a city “healthy” by promoting educated citizens contributing to the town.

    What higher quality schools do is attract middle-class, homeowning families to live there. That is what revitalizes a city…otherwise you end up with a luxury boutique (SF, Manhattan) or a poverty-stricken hole (Detroit, Oakland). I know our ‘betters’ running our lives in the government really, really hate the middle class (I don’t know any other way to explain their policies), but it’s the independent (i.e. non-union, non-big business–both of which are dependent on government) middle class who keep a city livable.

  4. Bruce Nye

    Len and Ralph,

    First of all, we’ve just put a summary of responses to the first half of the survey up on http://www.Oaktalk.com.

    The way the survey arose out of the 1/11 meeting didn’t really allow for the kind of precision Len refers to (but then, let’s face it, more scientific polling doesn’t usually permit these kinds of sharp edges, either). Those of us who organized the meeting went in with a pre-printed ballot with some program eliminations that had varying degrees of plausibility and that we thought we could attach at least somewhat accurate dollar figures to and that were GPF based. There were some obvious big expense items that we didn’t include (e.g., Park and Rec) because we simply couldn’t untangle the budget sufficiently to determine whether there really could be a savings and if so how much. I suspect that the Budget Office is working on this and others for the 2/16 meeting, but whatever info there is isn’t available yet.

    We then had kind of a broad ballot item that was not a program reduction, but a generalized proposal for personnel cost reductions. And we left a bunch of blanks on the ballot. As the meeting discussion proceeded, there were a variety of proposals from the floor, and while the discussion was moderated, these were added to the ballot more or less verbatim. So if nobody made the kind of precise proposal Len suggests (and nobody did) it didn’t go on the ballot.

    We agreed that in general, the on-line survey should track the ballot. The only exception was we added the parking item — CC’s F&M Committee met on 1/12, and parking was too fat a target to ignore. So if somebody didn’t throw the idea up there during the discussion, it didn’t make it into the survey.

    In terms of scheduling and announcing (I assume Ralph is referring to the MOBN! meeting, not the 2/16 CC meeting), we had quite a bit of on-line publicity for the meeting. Not sure if you are on the e-mail list, but if not, all you need to do to get on is send an e-mail to Oaklanders@makeoaklandbetternow.org. And the MOBN! blog finally has RSS feed, so that’s an option as well.

    Hope to see you both at the next meeting.

  5. Ralph

    Bruce, the scheduling comment was not meant for you. It was more (there is a word I am looking for that my tired mind can’t find)…just an observation that on any given night next week (1/24), I have 3 places I either need or want to be during the 5 – 9 timeframe…short of having gazoo do some magic, there is no way i can make all the events

  6. oakie

    “There’s no doubt at this point that whatever balancing measures get taken, they’re going to be unpleasant. But which of a series of distasteful choices should the Council go with?”

    Really? Well, it is interesting how our choices get framed this way. I can envision ways to cut the budget that would not be distasteful at all.

    For example, how did Mayor Sleepy get a miraculous 84% raise from Mayor Dopey? Or an expense account that went up 6000%? I would find it with not an iota of distaste to reverse those things. But, alas, they are not on the list. Wonder of wonders. Or elimination of free parking for city employees? Or elimination of a limousine for Mayor Sleepy. It is no wonder the ship of state is sinking quickly.

  7. Bruce Nye

    Oakie,

    Actually, if you take a look at the results of the survey posted at http://www.oaktalk.com, you’ll see that reduction of the mayor’s office budget and elimination of or reduction of parking for employees were both spectacularly popular, with few Oaklanders expressing remorse or distaste. But City Council and citizens alike are going to have to recognize that easy targets like these — even with dramatic reductions — won’t come close to bridging the gap. As I pointed out in an earlier ABO post, http://tiny.cc/AsQTW, you could probably shut down the mayor and city council for the rest of this fiscal year altogether and eliminate all the general purpose fund money for Park and Rec and HR, and you still wouldn’t close the gap. So the expense accounts, salary increase, car and driver, free parking, etc. etc. may demonstrate the city’s cluelessness, and getting rid of them might — no, probably would — make us all feel better, but they don’t really solve the problem.

  8. len raphael

    suppose the nyt’s travel writeup on Lake Chalet restaurant is as good as we expect: very favorable on the location and building, acceptable as food, and no mention of Oakland’s problems.

    (http://travel.nytimes.com/2010/01/24/travel/24bites.html?hpw)

    but that first line was a sharp jab, “Every city needs a lake, and every lake needs a $22 million restaurant on its shores, where you can munch on tacos ”

    was it really 22Mill and entirely opm or was it from one of the outstanding bond issues? what percentage is used by the restaurant and how much by the city? how much of the cost went for restaurant specific costs. don’t suppose the lease terms are public? who managed the construction project?

    at this point, it’s sunk costs. but interested in lessons learned from that project.

    -len raphael
    temescal

  9. James Robinson

    The article did not state how much of the $22 million was provided by the city, nor did it state how much the city and county stand to recoup in taxes. Economic Development costs money! Maybe if we take some of the money that the city pours down the bottomless gullets of unaccountable non-profits and invest it into ventures that might (or might not) make a profit, Oakland will stop being East Bay’s “Indian reservation” for the permanent underclass.

  10. Livegreen

    Bruce, When you mention all this shut down in City Services I have two reactions for u:

    –This is exactly why the CC should not have sat on their tushes since July when they found out about this deficit (5 months of NO action)!
    –They MUST consider salary freezes & cuts (not reducing services through more furloughs). They haven’t even mentioned this as an option!

    The CC is at fault for not taking these actions and this should not go unmentioned.
    Avoiding salary cuts for City workers while either reducing services or raising taxes costs Citizens. Who works for who? Who are City services supposed to exist for?

    If the CC supports ONLY City employees (many who don’t even live here), who do they repesent?

  11. len raphael

    ironic in that govt jobs that previously were much lower paying than private industry with somewhat better benefit.

    if the cc’s method of fixing the deficit (not counting their daily chanting sessions praying for another real estate bubble or economic boom) is a combo of furloughs and parcel tax increases, then we’re headed for a strange scenario where there’s a smaller upper middle class, an increasing larger lower class, and a smaller middle class that consists heavily of various government employees, including city employees.

    how do you take your tea?

    -len raphael
    temescal

  12. len raphael

    LG, our city officials have seen a deficit of this magnitude coming for at least two years, and arguably much longer if you count the retirement costs coming home to roost.

  13. MarleenLee

    Check out this link http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:Mka81uUImXMJ:www.oaklandnet.com/government/fwawebsite/personnel/PDF/SalarySurvey-CPIChart.pdf+Oakland+wage+comparability+data&hl=en&gl=us&sig=AHIEtbSUNTMambC8Um1eJkOtTlLOlYB4HQ

    It’s a chart that shows how overpaid Oakland civil servants are, even when compared to city workers in neighboring municipalities. There is simply no excuse for these disaparities.

    By the way, “across the board” cuts simply will not work if they include police. That’s because, as many people have already mentioned in previous posts, if you cut even one police officer position, the City loses all the Measure Y money and the COPS money. I’m not sure people who took the MOBN survey were told this or understood this. For this reason, and because of the disparities noted in the chart above, the City should make deep cuts where necessary, and no cuts where they are not appropriate, like in number of police officers. And when I say cuts, I mean mostly salaries, not jobs. Yes, negotiating wage cuts is difficult, but it needs to be on the table!

  14. Naomi Schiff

    Re: Boathouse and Lake Chalet.

    Don’t blame the shortfall on this particular project, please.

    None of this was general fund, as far as I know, and I have been going to the Measure DD committee meetings. 19 million was from Measure DD bond measure. I don’t know the specifics but it is under a 20-year 3-million-dollar lease negotiated with CEDA, and I think around 2 million tenant improvements were borne by the tenant. Rents are paid to Parks and Rec. I’m not sure whether the state bond measure Prop 40 moneys finally came through, but I believe this project was on the list. Rotary Club donated 100,000 for the big stairway down to the boathouse.

    Of course over 20 years the restaurant will generate not only sales tax and rental payments, but also the less-easy-to-calculate benefits to the economy generated by having a renovated Lake Merritt edge. The restaurant is also generating quite a few jobs, most held by Oakland residents.

    The space used to be run-down, and was used by parks staff as offices.

  15. len raphael

    Naomi, i assumed it wasn’t out of the genl fund. So is the entire building rented to the restaurant? and what’s the rent for how much sq footage? is parking free :)

    just trying to understand what happened. sounds like we ended up with another Temescal Studio One, beautifully renovated building at very very high price.

    And pardon my ignorance of all the bond measures, so 11M per (http://www.waterfrontaction.org/map/dd_boathouse.htm ) or was it 19M of the 22Mill came out the Measure DD 198Mill bond measure passed in 2002 by Oakland voters? Which is to say it wasn’t paid by other peoples money (opm) but by by Oakland people’s money via a parcel tax?

    Where did i see a half serious comment that residents should get a small discount on their tab at the Chalet?

  16. Naomi Schiff

    16,452 sq ft includes two other small tenants (I think) Gondola Servizio and LM Rowing Club (may not be using it yet).

    This parcel-tax-funded project was more expensive than anticipated due to the fact that the building was sinking into the lake on its old foundation (paid for by public around 1900, by the way). It is a historic building and certainly an expensive project. On the other hand, there was enormous deferred expenditure on this resource (as with Studio One too), which if it had been kept up over the years, might have been in better shape.

    The project that is short of funds as a result is the other boathouse, the Sailboat house. I am hoping that we can leverage additional funding for that one, so that in the end we get everything fixed. The city staff has been doing a pretty good job of balancing this stuff out, and is now looking for other sources of funds to leverage the DD monies so that we can complete everything.

    I don’t know the parking rules (I’m a walker) but I imagine valet parking is certainly not free.

    On the whole I think the DD monies are being watched closely, and that expenditures are adhering to the measure language.

    I’m hoping we get to see some of what that “opm” through sales tax, rentals of the banquet room for weddings, meetings, anniversaries, etc. and by the ripple effects upon the surrounding area of cleaning up that formerly pretty depressing part of Lakeside Park. I think that the reason that the operators have instituted “taco Tuesdays” and so on is so that they can have some lower-priced attractions. Of course all restaurants have to struggle with the economics of a service-intensive business. Yes it is cheaper to eat at home. On the other hand, it is a pretty pleasant place to visit.

  17. Patrick

    I would also like to mention that continuing to pile on parcel taxes will just make things worse in the long run. It is well-known that Oakland’s real property tax rate is among the highest in California (if not the highest). This depresses property values even further, and will put off any hoped for recovery. That our City Council doesn’t seem to understand this is truly disheartening. When faced with the prospect of paying the equivalent of 2% of the value of their home every year (and it *will* get that high), people quickly see the value of spending thousands of dollars less per year in another city – especially in light of Oakland’s dreadful services, non-profit giveaways and lip-service to combatting crime. To completely ignore the possibility of compensation cuts (probably because they fear not being re-elected if the Unions support someone else) is proof positive that our City Council is ineffective at the most important aspect of their positions: protecting the interests of the citizens of Oakland.

    To address Bruce Nye: while eliminating free parking, firing chauffeurs and reducing the size of the Mayor’s office budget may not fill the budget hole, I think your comment misses the entire point: these things should not have existed in the first place. You’re in good company; the CIty Council doesn’t seem to think that this sort of wasteful spending angers the people from whom they are about to ask for yet another parcel tax either. They are wrong. They had best start thinking about Plan B now.

  18. Brad

    Looking at Bruce’s posted MOBN survey results, I was struck how clearly the MOBN supporters favored cutting costs (essentially, reducing city services and reducing city employee compensation) over increasing expenditures. Will the City Council have even a fraction of the political will that would be required to take the politically hard, fiscally prudent steps that the majority of MOBN members support?

    As I count it, here are the positions that received a greater than 50% “thumbs up” vote:

    Oppose: Reduce library funding to Q minimum
    Support: Eliminate free parking for City employees and elected officials
    Support: Require percentage cuts across departments in discretionary expenses
    Support: Cut city council budget (all those legislative policy aids?)
    Support: Cut mayor’s office budget
    Support: Across the board personnel cost reductions (furloughs, job eliminations, “other appropriate steps”)
    Support: Across the board job position cuts
    Support: Hiring Freeze and early retirement
    Support: Restructure retirement (fewer retirement benefits?)
    Oppose: Eliminate police officers
    Support: Major retail incentives (funded by revenue generating ballot measure)
    Support: Increase in police (funded by revenue generating ballot measure)
    Support: Civilianization of police (without any new taxes)

    The way I read this is that MOBN clearly supports the following cost-cutting measures: 1) a broad reduction in city services (across the board cuts to expenses, furloughs), 2) slashing retirement benefits for city employees, 3) slashing the number of city employees (hiring freeze, early retirement, job position cuts), 4) slashing personnel cuts by “other appropriate steps” (compensation reductions?), but 5) hands off the police, except to civilianize the department, and 6) hands off the libraries.

    (MOBN also supports cost cutting by trimming the mayor’s office and the city council and eliminating free parking for city employees and elected officials, but as others have pointed out, these are relatively minor cost savers. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t layoff excess legislative police aids and mayor’s office employees and make the remaining ones pay for their own parking.)

    The only things a clear majority of MOBN members are willing to levy taxes for are 1) more police, and 2) retail incentives.

  19. LoveOakland

    RE: wage freeze

    Last year, City employees agreed to a 10% pay cut for two years, including a retirement hit.

    Fire took a smaller salary cut and Police took a still smaller cut.

  20. Livegreen

    LoveOakland, City Employees DID NOT agree to a 10% pay cut. They agreed the City would stop paying half of the “employee contribution” to their retirement benefits (besides the 90% the City already pays), and they agreed to furloughs when they don’t work anyway.

    Neither is a pay cut.

  21. LoveOakland

    City employees (non-sworn) agreed to pay for the full employee share of retirement (equal to 5% of salary) permanently. They also agreed to 12 unpaid furlough days. This is an income reduction of 10%, 5% of which is permanent. They also agreed to a pay freeze for 2 years. Police agreed to defer a 4% increase for, I think, 2 years.

    The reason the employer was paying part of the employee contribution is that it was a cheaper alternative to wage increases in past years (wage increases compound in cost). The City pays the full employer and employee share for the Police.

    While public employees and local government each pay a share to the retirement system, the bulk of the money used for retirement comes from growth in the investment of the funds. During good economic times, local governments usually see their retirement contributions drop (Oakland had -0- payments for several years) and when times are tough, the rates increase. The employee share remains fixed in good and bad times.

    The average retirement benefit for CalPERS retirees is about $2000/mo. Oakland employees are not eligible for Social Security.

  22. David

    And Oakland employees are still paid more than any other municipal employees.
    Hate to say it, but a pay cut is past due.

  23. livegreen

    I think it’s fair to say David & I have not always agreed. Here we do. I find it enlightening that City employees, highest paid in the nation, are complaining about a temporary pay-cut of 5%, while many in the private sector have lost a lot more.

    & Since they’re on average more wealthy than most citizens in the City of Oakland, and have suffered less, I find it surprising that they prefer the rest of us take yet another hit rather than contribute just a little bit more themselves & still come out ahead of the rest of us.

    To me it shows a lack of consideration and caring. Is this what public service is about today?

  24. LoveOakland

    The survey cited regarding the pay of Oakland employees is so inaccurate that the city mgr is removing it. OPD officers used to get more overtime than anywhere else in the US but not sure what the current situation is.

    The reason you didn’t hear the ‘complaining’ about the pay cut from city employees is because, while they probably didn’t love it, they felt they needed to do their share to address the budget deficit. In fact, the union recently urged the city council to enact a hiring freeze to begin to address the city’s budget shortfall. The Council did but the city admin is proposing to hire for some of the 150 or so vacancies. Up for a vote on Tuesday.

  25. Brad

    “Nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”

  26. MarleenLee

    The salary survey is going to be “taken down?” It is “inaccurate?” The City better explain why it uses our tax dollars to commission studies that, when unflattering, are then claimed to be “inaccurate!” Are they going to recoup the money from the bozo who charged the City to put together an “inaccurate” salary survey? I’ll be monitoring this one for sure.

  27. len raphael

    re brad’s quotation: Max, you better not say anything bad about geo orwell. i’m still plotting my reply to your put down of winston c. i might have to accept defeat on wc.

    -len

  28. Max Allstadt

    Len, you saw that quote from Churchill. Not much to say to defend that.

    Re: Orwell, check this out: http://www.vanguardist.org/uploads/orwell.jpg

    LoveOakland,

    The union wants a hiring freeze because it doesn’t hurt them. At least not as much as pay cuts of layoffs would. The hiring freeze is also illegal, and could lead to an unwinnable lawsuit for the city, should someone decide to pursue it.

  29. livegreen

    Is this the salary survey you’re talking about?:
    http://www.abetteroakland.com/documents/salarysurvey.pdf

    Save while you can so a record is retained.

    BTW, if they remove it, isn’t this like waving a red cape in front of Contra Costs News? Besides having longer articles on certain subjects recently, this is the 1 remaining shred of journalistic integrity they still have.

    I hope the Mayor withdraws the Survey and they sue the City. It will get a lot more attention than it otherwise would.

  30. Max Allstadt

    It was explained to me by someone who understands the charter better than I do, but believe that under the City Charter, the Council can only create or eliminate positions, not make hiring and firing decisions. Essentially, I think that even if they pass the freeze, Lindheim can still hire whoever he wants, because the Charter separates his powers from theirs.

    V, did I get that right?

  31. dto510

    I agree with Max, the Council can implement a hiring freeze, but they can’t dictate which positions are exempted (if there are any exemptions, which there have to be). A hiring freeze is terrible policy anyway, essentially amounting to cutting programs at random.

  32. Born in Oakland

    Should we not look at the impending bankruptcy of our fair City and how it will affect hiring freezes, union rights , salary surveys, potential lawsuits and the future of our political oligarchy?

  33. Pauline

    This is a survey that the city cannot take down – it downloads a file http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2010/tables/10s0455.xls
    the title is Table 455. City Government Employment and Payroll — 85 Largest Cities
    It shows data for 2000, 2006 and 2007 for the 85 largest U.S. cities. Oakland ranks 54th in population on this list in 2007. This table shows the average monthly earnings a city pays.
    In 2000 and 2006, Oakland’s average monthly earnings were the highest of all 85 cities. In 2007 Oakland was the seventh highest.
    Also, it is interesting to know that regarding pensions, Oakland has 163 retired people with pensions over $100,000 ranging from $100,104 to $169,920. See http://www.californiapensionreform.com San Francisco has 40 people, SanJose 0, Sacramento 87, Los Angeles 35