Okay. Monday’s budget meeting, the short version. Uneventful. Poorly attended. Big deficit. That pretty much covers it. But just in case that didn’t satisfy your curiosity, read on for the full report.
Councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente, Pat Kernighan, Jean Quan, and Jane Brunner were present for Monday’s meeting, as were City Administrator Dan Lindheim and Assistant City Administrator Marianna Marysheva-Martinez. Notably absent from this particular Mayor’s town hall meeting was Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums.
We started with statements (some brief, some not so much) from each of the Councilmembers, which basically all said the same thing – the City has no money, very little of the City’s money is discretionary, there is no easy answer, everything will have to be cut, the deficit is unprecedented, they’re exploring all their options. Nobody said anything particularly noteworthy.
City Administrator Dan Lindheim then explained that the Mayor was unable to attend because he had the stomach flu and didn’t want to infect everyone at the meeting (What-ever. I mean, for all I know, the guy spent his entire day huddled over the toilet vomiting uncontrollably and really couldn’t make it, in which case, I feel terrible for him and hope he gets better soon. But it’s hard not to notice the Mayor seems to have kind of a tendency to get sick when he’s scheduled to appear in public.) Anyway. Lindheim’s comments were otherwise uneventful. We learn that after all the many, many hours he’s spent studying all the minutiae of the budget, he’s come to the fascinating conclusion that the big issue here, what makes things different now from the way they were a year ago, is – wait for it – the revenue. As in, we have less of it now than we wanted. Crazy, I know. He reminded the crowd that we’ve almost completely drained our reserve fund, noting that it is expected to end the year at roughly $5 million. Nice, huh? He said that most of the problem is the decrease in the Real Estate Transfer Tax, but also complained of reduced sales tax revenues and property tax revenues (due to “an assessor who is very aggressively assessing properties down”).
He said that in an effort to close the hole, the City has applied for every stimulus grant we possibly can (which doesn’t sound very strategic to me, but what do I know?), including a $20 million/year grant to fund police officers. (Assistant City AdministratorMarianna Marysheva-Martinez later clarified this was a $23 million/year grant). Then he said that if we don’t get this particular grant, we will be forced to cut the police department’s sworn staffing to 599 officers. That would mean no longer collecting the Measure Y parcel tax, and therefore no longer employing the 63 officers funded by Measure Y, and reducing the sworn staffing by an additional 140 officers beyond the pre-Measure Y total of 739.
Okay, I don’t have the foggiest idea why he said this, because we will obviously never do that, whether or not we get this grant. People would not stand for it – between the sizable portion of the population clamoring for more police and all the recipients of Measure Y violence prevention funding, no remotely sane Councilmember would ever even dream of consenting to such a thing. The suggestion is so preposterous and outside the realm of reality that I can’t imagine why he even mentioned it.
He also said that the City has asked the unions (other than police and fire) for a 10% give-back, but that this will save only $7 million, and they don’t think they can ask for any more than that. I submitted a question asking for elaboration/clarification of that 10%, is that in the form of salary reductions, increased retirement contributions, medical cost sharing, or what? My question was not answered, but I can only assume that at least a few other people asked similar things, because Ignacio De La Fuente said twice during the meeting that there were a number of questions about what was being requested from the union, but that he did not think it was appropriate to discuss the issue in public. I wholeheartedly disagree, but this post is going to be long already, so we’ll save my little rant about transparency for another day.
Okay, on to the Q&A. I stopped counting so I can’t be sure on the number, but there were like 8 or so people from Uhuru, who, expectedly, have little worthwhile to say, and of course, were not the least bit interested in listening to reasonable responses to their comments. The City’s proposed budget expands the prison-industrial complex, it’s a “war budget,” and so on and so on. Blah blah blah.
Someone asked about employees earning over $100,000/year, and one of the Councilmembers responded (I feel like an idiot, but I somehow forgot to write down who, and I don’t trust my memory enough to say who I think it was) that actually, 99% of the people earning over $100,000 annually are police officers and firemen who earn that much because of all their overtime. Oh. My. God. Perhaps this will seem like a petty thing to pick on to some of you, but everyone has their own little pet peeves, and here is mine: I HATE IT when people say things that are not true. Particularly, when people speaking in an official capacity representing the government say things that are not true.
I understand the point that the Councilmember was attempting to communicate – that many of those 1,418 over $100k earners are police and fire. They could have said that. They could have said “most” or “the overwhelming majority” or any number of other phrases that would have communicated their point clearly and effectively and would not have been wrong. This happened so many times that night – I heard like five different figures for the estimated deficit, six different numbers for the percentage of police and fire budgets in the General Fund, and four different numbers for the discretionary portion of the General Fund. This in spite of the fact that all that information was clearly displayed on a giant chart for everyone to see in front of the room. Unacceptable!
I am confident that none of the many wrong numbers that were tossed out over the course of the night were intentionally meant to deceive or mislead. But things are either true or they aren’t. Motivation is immaterial – when you have Councilmembers just randomly making up numbers off the top of their head to answer questions from the public, the bottom line is this: you are my elected representative and when you tell me something I cannot feel assured that it is true. This type of behavior erodes the already fragile trust in government and discourages civic engagement, and I find it so upsetting. For the record, policemen and firefighters constitute 73% of the city employees earning over $100,000/year, not 99%. OMFG.
Anyway. Someone asked about using more redevelopment agency funds to make up for the General Fund deficit, and Dan Lindheim said that we already fund some police officers with RDA funds and that he thinks we’re pushing the edge of what State law allows as it is, so we probably can’t dip into that well any more than we already are.
There was a question I couldn’t really hear, something to do with taxes, and I’m assuming how a sales tax is regressive, because Pat Kernighan responded to it that the only progressive kind of tax is an income tax, which local governments don’t have the ability to do, and that she understands that, as it is now, “we tax every move you make” and that she would like to look at ways to increase revenue aside from taxes, but did not offer any suggestions about how she intended to do that.
Someone asked about raising parking fees, which Ignacio De La Fuente said they intended to do. Jean Quan added that they’re looking at adding automated credit card payment machines to some of their parking garages, because they can’t afford the staff to keep them open later than they are currently, but would like to earn more money by extending the hours. .
In response to a question about whether bankruptcy was under consideration, Dan Lindheim said that it simply “isn’t a very effective tool for us” because bankruptcy only really helps when you’re stuck in contracts that you can’t pay for and can’t get out of, which we’re not at the moment.
Someone asked if the City had considered renegotiating the debt on the Coliseum to something with a lower interest rate, and Marianna Marysheva-Martinez said they’re examining their entire debt portfolio looking for options. Jean Quan added that the City refinanced a lot of their debt two years ago when they had a $39 million deficit, which saved roughly $20 million/year, and there’s not much left to do.
Someone suggested the City sue the banks, which Dan Lindheim pointed out we’re already doing. Someone asked why the staff furloughs weren’t rotated throughout the workforce instead of having the entire City shutdown, and Dan Lindheim responded that basically our agreement with the union won’t allow us to do them “rationally,” so the furloughs have to be imposed as layoffs and you can’t pick and choose who gets to work. In response to yet another rambling Uhuru comment (“You talk about the police union. Well, there’s no peoples’ union!”), Jane Brunner totally randomly told the room that she read a book about restorative justice over Spring Break and now thinks it’s like, the greatest thing ever.
There were a couple of questions about getting more revenue from the Port or taxing the Port in some fashion. Ignacio De La Fuente said that everyone on the Council wants to get money from the Port, but there are legal barriers in the way. Dan Lindheim pointed out that the Port is actually in deep financial difficulty and isn’t exactly swimming in excess revenue that we could take even if we wanted to, and noted that the City Charter gives us very little authority to take money from the Port. Marianna Marysheva-Martinez pointed out that the Port pays us about $7 millions/year for police and fire services.
Then, Jane Brunner, out of nowhere and for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, announced that she disagreed with Lindheim and De La Fuente about our authority over the Port, and doesn’t think the Charter is written in such a way at all. Which…okay, it’s fine to disagree. But then,, she goes on to say that she hasn’t actually read the City Charter in “several years,” but her memory is that it simply says the Port is a department of the City. OMG. Why, why, why in God’s name would you say something like that? I mean, okay, you’re the Council President, you haven’t read the Charter in years, wev, I’m sure you have lots of demands on your time and the whole thing could take as much as an hour to get through, depending on how fast you read. Fine. But if you couldn’t be bothered to read the Charter, why would you then feel qualified to announce that you disagree with people who presumably have about what it says? And why would it ever occur to you to announce at a public meeting that you haven’t read it? You don’t want to read the Charter? Fine. Don’t tell anyone. Or, you know, tell everyone and then be wrong about what it says. Either way, I guess. FYI, the Charter does say that the Port is a department of the City, but then goes on to explain how it is controlled exclusively by the Board of Port Commissioners and the City doesn’t have any power over it except to appoint those Commissioners. So I guess we could just wait until the whole Board turns over and only appoint people who want the Port to pay taxes to the City, but it kind of seems like it would be easier to change the Charter. Anyway, ugh.
And I guess that was pretty much it. During the entire meeting, there was a grand total of one thoughtful and informed spoken comment from a member of the public. Let’s try to do a little better next week, folks. Next Monday! 6:30 PM! Lakeside Garden Center, 666 Bellevue! Be there! Tell them what you think they should be doing to balance the budget. Cause right now, all they’re hearing is crazy people telling them to get rid of the police. It isn’t helpful.