Letters for the week of July 1, 2015 

Readers sound off on street art, pensions, and hospital funding.

"Oakland's New International Icon," Art, 6/17

A Terrific Addition

It's an uplifting work that you can see from all over town. Zio Ziegler, thank you!

Matt Chambers, Oakland


"Austerity's Champion," Feature, 6/17

You Owe Borenstein An Apology

As the former executive editor of Bay Area News Group, I oversaw the work of both Dan Borenstein and the current editor of the Express, Robert Gammon. Borenstein's standards as a journalist are impeccable. He's fair, thorough, unbiased, and smart as a whip. He digs until he uncovers the truth. And his work on underfunded pension systems has been groundbreaking. This hit piece from the Express isn't journalism at all — and Gammon, who knows better, should be ashamed. It throws labels at Borenstein hoping one sticks, and only quotes pro-labor sources who clearly have a stake in the game. The reporters clearly came at this story with an agenda, and the result is a work of fiction that wouldn't see the light of day in any respectable publication in the country.

Gammon owes Borenstein an apology. And everyone else owes Borenstein their gratitude.

Kevin Keane, Alameda

The Tribune Owes Oakland an Apology

If Dan Borenstein wants to write opinion columns stating that nothing is more important than the cost of public workers' pensions — and this, by the way, with no context attached in terms of what really happened to public financing — he should do that. But for a major newspaper to see governing a city through that lens — that only lets down the very citizens it claims to inform. Oakland wouldn't be seeing the economic boom that it is if the city had followed Borenstein's approach.

I also find it amusing that the same columnists who make their living attacking others freak out if anyone so much as questions their point of view.

Pamela Drake, Oakland

The Issue Is Complicated

Even the most anti-public sector fiscal conservative would agree that the local government layoffs and pay cuts during the last recession prolonged the recession. Conservatives would say the overall nationwide standard of living will benefit in the long run. Progressives would say local governments should take the lead of providing the compensation and benefits every employee should be getting for both economic justice and macro-economic reasons.

The long-term macro national issues by themselves would make a worthwhile public discussion. Those should form a separate discussion from the local city budget discussions on prioritizing providing more services versus raising employee pay/current benefits versus retirement benefits. Local discussions have to be grounded in local pay scales, cost of living, and the local capacity/willingness to pay higher taxes. Combining long-term national effects with shorter-term local consequences makes the conclusions rhetorical.

To have that local budget discussion in Oakland, it would be helpful if the city published a recent "total" compensation survey, comparing the combined benefits/retirement/gross pay for various positions to what other cities and the federal and state governments pay. Because of job descriptions, it would be harder, but necessary to get similar numbers for the Oakland private sector. In 2010, the city did post online a nationwide, detailed compensation survey, but pulled it shortly after bloggers at ABetterOakland.com started to dig into the details. The city said the survey was misleading.

For you to state the obvious that say Oakland's tax revenues and the stock market are rising doesn't automatically support your conclusion that Oakland's retirement obligations are manageable if we pay in, say, $20 million extra per year without stating your assumptions about long-term stock market returns, employee costs, life expectancies, other operating costs, and tax revenues. That will be deadly boring for many readers. You could start by reporting on the city's five-year fiscal forecast instead of the two-year budget that gets all the media attention.

It's a particularly crucial discussion to have now because of the demands for city employees to get raises, as well as needs for social services and affordable housing subsidies.

The fastest rising source of tax revenues is real estate transfer tax coming from both real growth and gentrification. It is also the most volatile revenue source and riskiest to use to fund ongoing compensation and services. That discussion should be part of the larger one of whether and how to raise tax revenue and for what uses, short-term versus long-term.

I don't accept your declaration that we have a "dangerously under-funded fire department." You talked way too much with fire union official [Zac] Unger, and not enough with other union leaders such as the SEIU. Of all the city union workers, the firefighters come closest to being "fat cats." Why do you think the lines stretch around the block when OFD job interviews open up?

I have a different perspective on the firefighters Union. During the fall 2014 election season when I had an election interview with the firefighters board, I asked them whether they disagreed with me that the city had promised city workers benefits that they could never pay. The response was a candid "of course, that's just arithmetic." Then I asked why they wouldn't prefer a candidate for city auditor that brought up the funding issues to the voters and city council sooner than later, when we were starting to see a burst of real estate transfer tax revenue to pay for those retirement promises. Their answer was a straightforward (and I'm paraphrasing here only a little): "because elected officials will do the wrong thing."

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