Tensions flare at Oakland City Hall over budget cuts

January 25, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
At the Oakland City Council meeting Wednesday night the council decided to delay a very crucial vote to layoff people until next Tuesday. That's because dissolving a $28 million redevelopment fund is a complicated process and they don't want anyone to lose their job if they can prevent it. Despite interruptions by Occupy protesters, the City Council pressed on, but time is running out.

A crowd at the meeting chanted "no more budget cuts!"

"This is complicated, we've never done anything this big, this fast," said Councilmember Jane Brunner.

The council is under pressure to slash possibly 105 jobs which includes about 20 city administrator positions by the end of the month. The loss of $28 million in redevelopment funds has the mayor proposing huge cuts including slashing the budgets of the Oakland Zoo and Children's Fairyland by 40 percent.

"This process has made a mockery of the layoff provisions of our contract by providing insufficient notice," said Jeff Levin, the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers union leaders.

At the council meeting, union reps complained of the short notice, and accused the City Council of violating layoff procedures. Levin reminded the city of its mission statement that "employees are treated with fairness dignity and respect."

"But we are seeing none of that today and tonight those words are not worth the paper they are written on," said Levin.

"One of the reasons why it's going down so poorly is because we've all been in denial that this was going to in fact happen," said Councilmember Libby Schaaf.

The council is trying to save more money by consolidating departments and merging services. But the unions asked them to be strategic and cautioned the council not to undergo a wholesale layoff, or they may not be able to hire the employees back under the rules of the redevelopment fund.

"It's going to take months to figure out what your other obligations are under redevelopment. Laying off employees now leaves you nobody to deal with those remaining obligations. It's too soon. Take your time," said Terry Brennand from the SEIU.

The Council is going to re-huddle and try to come up with a plan to save more jobs before they vote this Tuesday.

Earlier in the day ABC7 spoke to some of those who are facing the deep budget cuts.

"We were blindsided, we found out through the media," said Oakland Zoo executive director Dr. Joel Parrott.

Parrott said he was surprised to learn his facility might lose a big chunk of funding from the city. To offset the loss of $28 million in redevelopment money, Oakland's mayor and city administrator propose cutting 40 percent of the current subsidy to the zoo, which is about $200,000 per year.

"It also reflects that what's happening in Sacramento is spilling all the way down into the cultural institutions and quality of life in our own community," said Parrott.

"I think it would be a tragedy, not just for the animals, but for the children who enjoy the zoo on a daily basis," said Christina Gaugler, a zoo visitor.

Free classes and programs for school children could be eliminated and zoo officials say they may have to raise admission prices.

"We do have a membership, and we're not looking forward to those prices going up," said Sarah Gueno, a zoo visitor.

Under the proposed budget, Children's Fairyland would also see its city subsidy cut by 40 percent, about $54,000 per year.

"For us, we can't scrimp when it comes to safety at the park, maintaining our facility, our operations. So what we're going to have to do is look at programs that we do for low-income kids, our outreach program," said C.J. Hirschfeld from Children's Fairyland.

The Jack London Aquatics Center would lose its subsidy entirely, which could impact city-run sailing and kayak programs for kids in the summer.

"I think to have kids kind of suffer the consequences is always detrimental," said Jane Pimmentel, an Oakland resident.

The center would not close as it was largely taken over last year by non-profits and schools that pay rent, providing much-needed revenue for the city.

"The plus side is that when they closed down the overarching organization that used to run this facility a year ago, the city worked really well to get other groups to come in and take over parts of it," said Gillian Curran from Oakland Youth Rowing.