Matthai Kuruvila, 7/13/10
Oakland officials and the police union negotiated into the night Monday in an attempt to avoid the layoffs of 80 of the city’s 776 officers, which could take place at 5 p.m. today.
While negotiators continued to meet, city spokeswoman Karen Boyd said the City Council, which must ratify any agreement, would not meet again until 10:30 a.m. today. Boyd also said the city had miscalculated the effective date of the layoffs and had been previously incorrect in saying they could have taken place Monday.
With Oakland desperate to cut its public safety costs to balance its budget, the police union has agreed to two key city proposals – that officers contribute part of their salaries toward their pensions and that the retirement age be pushed back for future hires.
However, the two sides were at an impasse over a police union proposal that the City Council ensure that no officers will be laid off for three years. Council members say that even worse budget problems loom for Oakland beyond 2010 and that they can’t afford to make any such promises.
“We’re still talking,” Rocky Lucia, an attorney for the Oakland Police Officers Association, said as he left City Hall shortly before 5 p.m. with union President Sgt. Dom Arotzarena and Vice President Sgt. Barry Donelan.
The City Council, meanwhile, was in an emergency closed-session meeting that began late in the afternoon. Mayor Ron Dellums emerged from the meeting shortly before 7 p.m., saying he was optimistic that progress would be made.
The council voted last month to lay off more than 10 percent of the police force to cope with what officials describe as an unprecedented financial crisis. The $407 million general fund budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 represents a decline of $69 million since 2005, and public safety now accounts for three-fourths of discretionary spending.
With the average officer’s salary and benefits totaling $188,000 a year, City Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, a union leader himself, has described the situation as “unsustainable.”
Chief makes plans
Police are intertwined with Oakland’s identity, in no small part because the city has the highest violent crime rate in the state.
Police Chief Anthony Batts said Monday that he will reconfigure the department to handle the layoffs, moving officers out of investigations and special details so police can give 911 response time top priority.
“My job is to take what they give me and make it as efficient as I possibly can,” Batts said.
He added, however, that many of the 80 officers facing layoffs are “pretty depressed. It’s not just that 80 – it’s the organization as a whole.”
Batts, who came to the city last year from the Long Beach Police Department, said he has had to deal with downsizing, “re-engineering” a police force and handling disturbances such as last week’s protests over the Johannes Mehserle verdict, but “I haven’t had to do all three at one time.”
Discontent among rank-and-file officers was evident Monday. Officer Dometrius Fowler, who has been on the force for 2 1/2 years, described the department as the victim of city “mismanagement.” He said the council hadn’t approached the union for concessions until the fiscal year was almost upon the city.
“I’m losing 80 of my brothers and sisters because they can’t manage money,” Fowler said.
Council members have described the financial crisis as one that escalated rapidly. Next year’s deficit, they say, is projected to hit $50 million. This year’s deficit was $42 million, before the council made an array of cuts, including the police layoffs.
The best hope for maintaining the police force at its current level is through the November ballot.
The council wants to suspend for three years a mandate from a 2004 parcel tax that the city budget for 739 officers. With that staffing, the parcel tax pays for an additional 63 officers.
In addition, some council members want to put either a sales tax or another parcel tax before voters. The proposed parcel tax would cost an estimated $360 per homeowner annually and would bring in $50 million.
Voter approval, however, is far from assured.
“I will work extremely hard to defeat both of them,” said Jim Dexter, 63, a member of the Community Policing Advisory Board and chairman of his neighborhood crime prevention council. “We need to have a property tax, but you can’t give more money to the City Council.”
Some officers said the city’s elected leaders don’t show due respect to the law themselves.
Officer Paul Phillips questioned how Dellums could owe $252,000 in back taxes. And he complained about an incident at Thursday’s protests over the Mehserle verdict, in which Councilwomen Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan – both of whom are running for mayor in November – joined a line of people locking arms in front of officers who were trying to advance on those causing mayhem.
“They should have been arrested,” he said. “If the Mehserle case was about someone having too much power, what does that say about the City Council if they can’t be arrested? Don’t they have too much power?”
776 Number of officers on the Oakland police force before any layoffs
$188,000 Annual total of salary and benefits per officer
$407 million Oakland’s general fund budget for current fiscal year (down $69 million since 2005)
$360 How much homeowners would pay annually under a proposed parcel tax to cover the budget deficit
Source: City of Oakland