Sitting around fighting about whether the police are paid too much (they are) and if they care about Oakland and its residents (they do) is not productive. Let’s try to move the conversation on this blog in a more useful direction.
At last week’s budget meeting, District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks suggested that it would be helpful, in determining how we should balance the budget, for the Council to step back and think about what the core functions of the City are. That is, go through each department, item by item, and decide what are the absolutely fundamental services the City is expected to provide.
Council President Jane Brunner had each Councilmember go around and list what they see as core functions, which wasn’t, well, terribly enlightening, because the discussion was so general, but for what it’s worth, here’s how that went. District 4 Councilmember Jean Quan listed libraries, recreation, and senior programs as the City’s core services, and noted that it’s important to look cumulatively at how residents will be impacted, not just by our cuts, but by those at the State level as well. She stressed that the City has a responsibility to look after the most vulnerable members of the community, particularly seniors, who will be particularly hard-hit by the State budget. She said she is not willing to eliminate the rangers, who patrol the City’s parks, from the police department.
District 5 Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente said that while public safety is the most important function the City provides, every department needs to share the pain, and he’s not prepared to shut down libraries to protect the police department from suffering any cuts. In order of importance, he listed police and fire as number one, followed by libraries, then recreation and senior centers, then maintaining streets and sidewalks and generally keeping the city clean, and called everything else “secondary.” District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan agreed, noting that she views recreation centers and libraries as part of providing public safety, and adding that she was uncomfortable with neglecting infrastructure maintenance to the point that it costs us more down the road in terms of repair. She also said that while some argue we shouldn’t spend money supporting cultural institutions, City money spent on cultural activities often leverages large outside sums.
District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel agreed that police and fire are core services, but said that that doesn’t necessarily mean everything in the police or fire departments are uncuttable, using the police helicopter as an example. She said City owned buildings were as important as streets and sidewalks in terms of maintenance, and disagreed with a suggestion put forth during public comment that the adult literacy program is not a core part of the library’s functions. Later, she added that anything focusing on environmental compliance and sustainable development should be considered core, because those departments keep us “future oriented” and on the “leading edge.” Okay.
Jane Brunner said that when identifying what’s core and what isn’t, it’s important to look at the critical functions of each department in terms of how they impact service delivery. Using the fire department as an example, she said she viewed the critical service as response to fire and medical calls, but noted that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s critical to have five people on a truck responding to a medical call. She added that senior centers and feeding the homeless are critical functions of the human services department, and that she, too, views recreation centers as part of public safety.
Desley Brooks said she was also not willing to cut the rangers, and felt it was essential to retain the neighborhood service coordinators. She stressed that any cuts need to be thoughtful, and noted that she would not be amenable to cutting the gang unit in the police department. At-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan preferred to address the question by looking at what isn’t core, asking how much police time gets spent responding to false alarms from home security systems. (This issue (PDF) was recently discussed by the Council’s Finance and Management Committee.) She agreed with Desley Brooks about the importance of the neighborhood services coordinators, saying they leverage a large number of volunteer hours from the community. She said the number of police officers we require for special events seems excessive, and should be reduced, and that any efforts around business and job attraction is a core function. She added that the Council should be careful not to cut any revenue generating positions.
So saying that police, fire, libraries, and parks are essential city services is kind of a no-brainer, and in that sense, the forty-five minutes the Council spent repeating it was somewhat of a waste of time. I mean, it’s not like anyone was going to be like “I think having lots of bureaucrats in City Hall is a core service.” So in hopes of making the exercise more productive, each Councilmember was assigned specific departments to look at in more detail, taking time to examine every function within that department through the lens of whether or not it was, in fact, an essential service.
I think this is a really good way to look at the budget. Realizing that even if the economy improves over the next two years, the City of Oakland is not going to be flush with extra cash any time in the forseeable future, it’s important that we identify what is absolutely necessary to provide, rather than simply making cuts willy-nilly.
I think it would be a good exercise for my readers as well. What do you view as the core functions of the City? What do you see as expendable? I’m not talking about employee pay – yes, compensation must be, and will be cut, but beyond that, we still don’t have enough money to do everything we want to do. So what programs are absolutely vital to your experience of living somewhere, and what programs are simply nice to have when we can afford them?
To get a sense of what functions are contained within different departments, I’ve posted the Mayor’s proposed budget, broken up by department, below. (All files are PDF.) Obviously, most people will not have time to sit and read through all of them. But I encourage everybody to pick just one and take some time to look at it. Examining what we spend money on, what brings money in, how staffing and budgets have changed over the recent years – it’s a good learning experience. I look forward to reading your comments.
- City Council
- City Administrator
- City Attorney
- City Auditor
- City Clerk
- Contracting and Purchasing
- Information Technology
- Finance and Management
- Human Resources
- Police Services
- Fire Services
- Parks and Recreation
- Human Services
- Public Works
- Community and Economic Development