Budget battle brews at Oakland City Hall

People spoke passionately at the Oakland City Council's special budget meeting Monday, with public comment lasting more than four hours in a meeting that went late into the night. 

Speaker after speaker got up and called on the council to give more funds for affordable housing, street repair, employee salaries, cleaner streets, fire prevention efforts, more help for the homeless, education, social services and many other issues.

The council was faced with tough choices as they also heard a report on independent budget and finance analysis of the plans.

Outside Oakland's City Hall, a coalition of community and labor union groups voiced concerns about Mayor Libby Schaaf's proposed budget.

"We see a lot of condominiums being built but not a lot of affordable housing being built, so that's what we're looking for the mayor to do," said Ladd Phelps, an Oakland resident with the East Bay Housing Organization.

Union members with SEIU Local 1021, which represents about 2,000 city employees, said their contract expired June1st and they need a larger pay raise for the next two years.

"We're fired up, can't take it no more," the union members shouted while marching in front of the city hall.

"The city has offered a 2% raise and I believe the cost of living, the CPI is now at 3.5, 3.9 so something commensurate with keeping workers level with the price of living," said Dwight McElroy, Chief Steward of the Oakland SEIU Local 1021.

The union and other groups said they support Council President Rebecca Kaplan's budget proposal.

"Affordable housing, homelessness, taking care of blight and trash, protecting the public health and maintaining our parks these are core values that are shared throughout the community," said Kaplan.

Mayor Libby Schaaf said she would like to fund all the items mentioned in President Kaplan's budget, but says it overestimates revenue by $100 million according to the city administrator's financial analysts.

"To spend more money than you have is a financial disaster," said Mayor Schaaf.

Schaaf says the city is facing a 40% increase in employee pension and health care costs in the next five years.

"We are part of California's retirement system which underestimated fund growth years ago and now is requiring all their members to catch up," said Schaaf, "It is a huge burden for us and it means delivering the exact same services that you're getting today are going to cost us 40% more over the next five years without changing anything. 

The mayor also disagreed with some of Kaplan's proposed cuts. 

"The big difference between the administration's proposal and President Kaplan's proposal is that she cuts nine and a half million dollars from our police department," said Schaaf.

Kaplan has called for an audit of the police department and a closer look at overtime costs.

Public comment lasted more than four hours. Most people spoke in favor of Kaplan's plan. 

Some students got up to speak in support of Mayor Schaaf's funding of Oakland Promise which provides college seed money for Oakland students.

"We can help students to prepare for college," said Chuyi Fang, an Oakland Promise Student Board Member.

"I feel like the City Council should understand that giving a kid a $100 scholarship around Oakland is motivating them to go to college and fulfill their dreams," said Jessica Ramos, an Oakland student who says the fund inspired her to work hard toward her goal of getting into Stanford or UC Berkeley and being the first in her family to go to college.

Jim Blachman, spokesman for the group Make Oakland Better Now, blasted the budget process itself. He said there was no way to compare the two budget proposals because the revenue and expense forecasts were not standardized.

"A better expense picture, a better revenue picture, more time to consider, a chance to consider both sides," Blachman said.

The meeting continued into the night, with debate lasting well past 11p.m. as the council continued to debate the budget plans.