It All Comes Down to the Unions 

Oakland city services, from libraries to parks and tree maintenance, will be devastated unless public workers agree to substantial concessions.

The Oakland Public Library system may be set for disaster in Mayor Jean Quan's worst-case budget scenario, but it's not the only fundamental quality-of-life service on the chopping block. Oakland's revered arts funding program could be devastated, too. And park maintenance and tree services, already reeling from severe reductions in 2009, are poised to be cut dramatically as the city grapples with a $58 million budget deficit. Cumulatively, the deep cuts could change the face of Oakland for years to come.

Whether any of that happens, however, depends largely on closed-door negotiations with Oakland's public-employee unions during the next two weeks. Quan's administration wants the unions to agree to $28.7 million worth of annual concessions, according to the city' budget guru, Sabrina Landreth. If city workers agree, then no library branches will be closed. However, deep cuts will still be necessary to the city's arts program, park maintenance, tree services, and other services — unless the city council agrees to put an $11 million parcel tax on the fall ballot and voters approve it.

For Quan to achieve the $28.7 million in employee concessions, she'll first have to convince the police and firefighters' unions to go along. "We're waiting to see what police and fire are going to do ... the other unions don't want to do anything until police and fire do their part," explained council President Larry Reid.

Last year, other city unions agreed to givebacks to help balance the budget, but the police union refused. As a result, the council voted to lay off eighty cops. This year, other unions want firefighters to agree to concessions as well, since they have agreed to fewer givebacks than other city employees in the past few years. City Administrator P. Lamont Ewell and ex-City Administrator Dan Lindheim, whom Quan asked to stay on to shepherd certain projects, are currently leading the negotiations with the public-safety unions.

According to Landreth, Quan is looking for $21.7 million in concessions from cops and firefighters, because the police and fire departments use a majority of the city's general fund budget. Quan and the city council want the police officers to pay 9 percent into their pensions, as other city employees do. The city also wants to be able to hire new police officers at a lower rate of pay.

The reason is that statistics show that lowering the starting salaries of new Oakland police officers is the only way the city will be able to increase the number of cops it has over the long run. Oakland police officers currently receive much higher salaries and benefits than those in other large cities with similar high rates of violent crime. As result, Oakland can't afford to have as many cops as other cities do.

Overall, Oakland spends about the same on policing as other similar size cities with high crime rates but has far fewer cops. An analysis by this newspaper shows that Oakland will spend about $445 on policing for each of its 390,724 residents in the current fiscal year, ending June 30. St. Louis, population 319,294, spends $405 per resident. Cleveland, population 396,815, spends $438. Baltimore, population 620,691, spends $487. And New Orleans, population 343,829, spends $318. Each of those cities also ranked among the top thirteen nationwide last year in terms of violent crime, according to the FBI's uniform crime statistics. Oakland ranked fifth overall; St. Louis ranked first.

However, each of those cities has at least twice as many police officers to combat crime as Oakland does. Oakland, with 660 sworn officers, has just 1.7 cops per 1,000 people, while St. Louis has 4.2, Cleveland has 4.1, Baltimore has 3.4, and New Orleans has 4.1. Oakland, in other words, spends about the same amount of money on policing as do similar cities, yet pays its cops much higher salaries, and so has far fewer of them.

According to Oakland budget statistics, the average police officer costs the city $191,390 a year in salary and benefits, including $44,200 in pension payments each year for the typical officer. "It's a big problem," said Oakland Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who has been talking about the issue since last summer. "We pay our police officers too much."

Over the years, the Oakland City Council went along with the police union's argument that the city needed to pay higher wages to attract recruits in part because of Oakland's crime problems. But other cities with similar crime issues are having no problem hiring police officers at considerably lower wages, Kaplan noted.

Although Oakland firefighters pay 13 percent into their pensions, compared to zero that cops pay, they also cost the city plenty. Oakland spends $185,703 per year in pay and benefits for the average firefighter. But instead of asking firefighters to agree to pay even more into their pensions, the city has been talking about getting the union to ease work rules governing required staffing. The firefighters' contract, for example, requires that each engine has at least four firefighters on board. Lowering such requirements could result in substantial savings. "We're talking about millions of dollars," said Oakland City Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente.

Quan declined to comment on the specifics of negotiations with police and fire, but was upbeat about the talks during an interview late last week. "They've opened up their contracts, they're negotiating in good faith," she said. "It's a positive sign."

Quan has resisted criticizing police and firefighter compensation this spring. And in recent weeks, police union President Dom Arotzarena and fire union head Chuck Garcia have stopped criticizing the mayor publicly as well. In fact, neither would comment for this article.

Unlike some past negotiations between city councilmembers and the unions, the mayor has taken a collaborative approach to bargaining this year. She noted that last year's confrontational approach with the police union didn't work. So this year, she has pushed for the parcel tax, a move the unions have endorsed, and has sided with unions in opposing calls for putting pension-reform measures on the ballot. Quan also has put forward a plan to sell the closed Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center to the city's redevelopment agency for $29 million — a proposal that would help offset even deeper cuts if it's approved.

However, some councilmembers, including De La Fuente and Reid, have objected to the proposal to sell the Kaiser because the redevelopment money that would be used to buy it has been earmarked for revitalization efforts in their districts in central and East Oakland. Reid and De La Fuente are working with Councilwomen Jane Brunner and Desley Brooks on other proposals to help close the budget gap. Meanwhile, Councilwomen Kaplan, Pat Kernighan, Nancy Nadel, and Libby Schaaf are working on a separate set of proposals that likely will be released this week. All appear to agree, however, that the lion's share of cuts must come from public-employee unions.

If the unions refuse, Quan plans to institute mandatory unpaid days off for all city workers, including police. Such a scenario would force veteran cops to return to patrol duty — a move many of them are loath to make — to cover shifts for patrol officers who are out on unpaid leave. The mayor has said that she plans to maintain a patrol force of 290 officers at all times, even when cops are taking unpaid leave.

As for the parcel tax, it'll be up to the council to put it on the ballot. And several councilmembers have indicated that they will wait to see if the unions agree to significant concessions before doing so. "It's one piece of a total effort," Kaplan said of the parcel tax.

However, if the employee givebacks fail to materialize, the council may reject the parcel tax on the grounds that taxpayers shouldn't have to make sacrifices when unions won't. The resulting cuts to city services not only will be unprecedented, but they promise to reverberate throughout Oakland's economy.

Oakland's Cultural Funding Program, for example, provides competitive grants to local artists and nonprofit arts organizations, and for the last 26 years has fostered the growth of a nationally recognized arts and culture scene. In 2010, the program distributed 57 grants totaling $925,126 to such recipients as Bay Area Girls Rock Camp, Diamano Coura West Africa Dance Company, Oakland Underground Film Festival, and Rock Paper Scissors Collective. It also offered financial assistance to sixteen individual artists and fourteen Art in the Schools participants, who reach tens of thousands of public school students each year.

Under the mayor's "all cuts" budget scenario, the Cultural Funding Program would be wiped out. It would lose its two-person administrative staff and all $725,126 it received last year from Oakland's general fund — already a reduction from the $1.2 million it got just three years ago. The program would be left with $200,000 from the Transient Occupancy Tax, a fund established in 2009 to help support a number of city institutions, but no dedicated staff to administer the funds. And even if Oakland's unions agree to substantial concessions, the Cultural Funding Program would still lose its staffing, and its budget would be cut by 50 percent to just over $365,000. Under the mayor's plan, the only way the arts program will be fully saved is with the parcel tax.

Supporters of the Cultural Funding Program argue that the effects of gutting it would reach well beyond the art world. "If they defund the arts, the burgeoning renaissance and all the new restaurants Uptown, that comes to a dead stop," predicted Michael Fried, cofounder of the Oakland Cultural Trust, an organization formed to oppose arts funding cuts in 2009. "You're putting a knife in the heart of the renaissance."

Economically, Oakland's creative and artistic sector encompasses nearly 1,500 entities that employ approximately 5,000 people, Fried said. According to the Oakland Cultural Trust's analyses, through direct expenditures and leveraged funds, nonprofit arts organizations represent between $80 and $100 million in economic activity in Oakland each year.

Along with the arts cuts and the planned closure of fourteen of the city's eighteen library branches, Oakland's more than one hundred city-owned parks may suffer major cutbacks to basic maintenance services, further devastating the public works department. Between November 2008 and July 2009, Oakland's Public Works Agency lost the equivalent of nearly 23 full-time park maintenance employees and $2.5 million in funding — a roughly 25 percent hit absorbed over eight months. The department now stands to lose ten more of its remaining fourteen highest-skilled workers in July. The laid-off gardeners would be replaced by a number of part-time low-skill workers, saving the city $1.5 million.

According to the mayor's budget proposals, both employee concessions and a parcel tax are needed to save the jobs, and the proposed tax measure may not go onto the ballot until November. In the meantime, the gardeners are all but guaranteed to lose their positions, and there's no saying if they'll still be available — or interested — when the city invites them back if the parcel tax passes.

"What we're really looking at is just sort of putting parks on hold and hoping that we can find ways to fill in in the meantime with volunteers," said Susan Montauk, chair of the Oakland Parks Coalition, which promotes citizen stewardship of Oakland parks. "But volunteers aren't supposed to be doing the work that gardeners do. ... It's overwhelming."

Oakland's tree services division is similarly hampered after losing 40 percent of its workforce in recent years, but will lose even more without employee concessions and the parcel tax. Crews are currently limited to performing emergency work only, to the detriment of preventative maintenance and public safety. In July, the division is set to lose another nine jobs, leaving it with a grand total of ten employees, or approximately one per 25,000 street trees. The move would save the city $1 million, but leave it with insufficient tree trimmers and drivers to handle even emergency work.

"Literally, we'll have sufficient staff to handle tree emergencies during regular business hours, and after-hours we'll probably have to contract out to an emergency contractor," said Parks and Building Services Manager Jim Ryugo, who oversees both park and tree maintenance. "We are entering into an area where we've never been before."

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