Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Keeping the City Going

Oakland, like many cities, is broke.  The outgo is bigger than the income, and what do we do about it, especially when we have contracts with the city workers' unions that guarantee high salaries, benefits, and pensions?

Well, now we have an example of what we might do about it.  Colorado Springs, it seems, has the same problem Oakland does, only smaller - a $28 million shortfall in its budget. Oakland's deficit is $100 million, but then, we're a bigger town.  Colorado Springs citizens resoundingly voted down a proposed tax increase to cover the deficit, so Colorado Springs is - shutting down.  According to a recent article in the National Post, the city is:
  • Turning off every 3rd streetlight.
  • Cancelling bus service at night and on weekends.
  • Stopping park maintenance, draining municipal pools, closing city recreation centers and museums.  (Not that you could swim in Colorado Springs right now anyway, but you get the picture.)  These facilities will have to find private support to stay open.  They're asking citizens to bring lawn mowers and mow the grass in public areas.
  • Removing trash bins from local parks.  Haul your picnic garbage back home, slobs.
  • Offering police helicopters for sale on the Internet (from the Denver Post).
  • Laying off firefighters, beat cops, the vice squad, the burglary investigators.
  • Stopping payment for street paving, relying on a regional authority.
You know, I always thought that you lived in a city because you liked the amenities - the paved streets, the parks, the rec centers, the museums.  And because you liked the public safety - the street lights, the police and fire protection.  If a city isn't going to provide any services, why should you live there??  What do you get?  The residents of Colorado Springs are still paying property taxes, you bet your bippy.  In fact, while the city is doing all this, it's also spending millions to keep the U.S. Olympic Committee's headquarters in Colorado Springs, which is not sitting well with some residents.  At least Oakland isn't doing that - no, wait, Ron Dellums just started angling to keep the A's, that's our equivalent of the Olympic Committee HQ.

I don't know what the answer is here.  Cities, like a lot of people, have developed the habit of spending the money they think they ought to have, instead of the money they have, which is almost always a smaller amount.  Somehow we have to break that habit, and go back to more frugal practices; but nobody wants to hear that they can't have all the perks they're used to.  Come to think of it, Oakland is now doing some of what Colorado Springs is - cutting park maintenance, for example.  And OPD is already understaffed.

If you live in Oakland, there's a city budget meeting next Tuesday, Feb. 16.  You have an interest in this.  If you're interested in some possible solutions from other citizens, take a look at the letter Make Oakland Better Now! sent to Jane Brunner as city council president - you'll find it here.  We have to solve this.  I just don't know how.


  1. I'm not sure that shutting off every third streetlight is such a bad idea. It would be better if the remaining streetlights were fitted with reflector hoods to direct the light where it is needed, rather than into the sky or into the eyes of drivers. You probably wouldn''t even notice the missing streetlights.

  2. The problem won't be fixed "any time soon" because our society is generating less wealth than it used to.

    The population continues to grow, while our economy is stagnating.

    Why is this so? Because we used to be an industrial giant, and gradually, over the last 50 years, we've relinquished this to other countries, and to the rich. It wasn't a fair fight, and we lost it.

    What does this mean in practical terms? It means that there's less tax money to collect than there used to be. It means that there are more people who want things, but the money they earn--the rate at which those who can find work are paid--is declining.

    The post-War prosperity which this nation enjoyed has evaporated. Now, it takes two (or even three) workers per household, to generate the income it took one person in 1955, or 1965. And the downward trend is accelerating.

    We aren't going to get national health, our infrastructure isn't going to get fixed, and everyone will have progressively to be satisfied with less. That also means public services will shrink.

    There are ways to reverse this, but it would take some major public policy shifts:

    1) Reduce the rate of population growth through controlled breeding and reduced immigration

    2) Reverse the outflow of capital from our country, and encourage domestic production (i.e., jobs)

    3) Eliminate our trade imbalance

    With just these three things, we could improve everyone's standard of living, and make government work again.

    But it won't happen. People are stupid. They don't want to hear the truth, even if could set them free.

  3. I'd like to amend one line slightly: Public Employee Unions, via the Cities for which they work, and the elected officials they hold in their pocket, like a lot of people, have developed the habit of spending the money they think they ought to have, instead of the money they have, which is almost always a smaller amount.

    The 3 parcel tax measures expected to go on the June ballot are going down if flames. Oakland's problem is not one of revenue, it is one of overspending - especially in the arena of employee compensation.

  4. Curtis and Patrick -- thank you for outlining the problem here. It's super obvious what the solution is.

    Hedera: we say we will Break Our Promise to unions of 90% forever retirement salary pensions (paying non-working people -- dumb! and a pyramid/ponzi scheme!) and that will be that.


  5. If paying non-working people is dumb, maybe nobody should be able to retire. My mother keeps saying that the world can't afford to support a bunch of useless old people and we all ought to die and get out of everybody's way. Somehow that view of human worth doesn't recommend itself to me.

  6. Thank you, Aunt Stanbury, as a retired person I was just about to complain about that attitude myself (although I'm not a union retiree and am not getting anything LIKE 90% of my salary...) The idea that "paying non-working people is dumb" when the "non-working people" have worked all their lives under the assumption that they would get this money is offensive to me. We need to renegotiate the contracts, yes, but let's stay civil.

  7. Hedera, I remember someone posting on the AbetterOakland blog that the 90% of salary pension rate was enacted just recently, and then made retroactive to cover existing employees. So really, most of those employees were NOT working all their lives under the assumption that they would get that money. They signed up for a fair, nay generous deal: a generous salary, great benefits, and a sizeable pension. Then they got a huge windfall, which was rammed through by the public sector unions. (I do have this history correct, right? Someone please correct me if I'm wrong.).

  8. Brad, I don't know enough about the history of union negotiations in Oakland to comment on that.

    Frankly, I was reacting to KenO's comment, "paying non-working people - dumb!" As a retired person ("non-working" my ass, I'm working as hard at volunteer projects as I ever did for a salary), I resent that statement, and the more I think about it the more I resent it. And when I think about it from the viewpoint of someone who was once disabled (I spend 4 years with one functional artificial knee and one arthritic knee), I resent it even more. The fact that a person doesn't currently work for a salary shouldn't affect their worth as a human being; but apparently in KenO's eyes, it does. It isn't an attitude that will be ANY help at a negotiating table with "those people" on the other side.

  9. Retirement income has taken the place of what once was the extended family paradigm. In our great grandparents' generation, grandma and uncle fred and the challenged cousin lived in the "spare room" and were possibly a necessary embarrassment to the family. This was how society dealt with its non-productive members. That--or prison, or asylums, or "poor houses" run by charities. Social Security concepts were meant to liberate people from these burdens, and they worked.

    But these huge pensions and golden parachutes are a different thing entirely. I have a friend--he shall remain nameless--who worked for BART for 20 years, who retired with a pension which pays him, unless I'm misinformed, something like $75,000 a year, in addition to which he has FREE full health coverage, and a retirement account somewhere north of $450,000, and a free BART pass for life. This will be in addition to his social security (when he qualifies). Obviously, this much lucre is far in excess of what any reasonable person should expect from a typical low-level unskilled wage-earning position, no matter how many years one worked.

    There are executives who are retiring with millions upon millions--whose lives are nothing more than a royal flush, with multiple residences, fleets of cars, constant vacationing, and unlimited disposable mad money.

    The social contract in a democracy shouldn't be a pretext for perpetuating the privileges of the rich. "Freedom" isn't about insuring that most people scrimp, while the top 1% live in lavish splendour.

  10. Anonymous12:05 PM

    FYI The city unions agreed to a 10% pay cut last year. Not sure what the Fire and Police Unions did but they took a cut too. Since Oakland is not in Social Security, the retirement check city retirees get is it. Oakland employees hired before 1986 also aren't eligible for Medicare.

  11. You're right, Anonymous, they did - and I believe Fire and Police also either took a cut or waived a contractual raise. I didn't realize Oakland wasn't in Social Security; and how on earth did they get pre-1986 employees excluded from Medicare??

    The problem actually isn't the fact that the City Council bargains for these generous pensions; it's that it bargains for the generous pensions and then doesn't fund them. Oakland is not alone in this, either.

    Everybody wants to go to Heaven but nobody wants to die. Sigh.

  12. Ken O5:40 PM

    Hi Hedera, others.

    I'm not saying that retired people should go die quietly and quickly somewhere.

    That's what family is for. If you put your kids in daycare w/ babysitters, then your kids will put you in nursing care w/ attendants. If you reared your kids at home, your kids should take care of you in their homes, just as mentioned above, which reflects most of human history.

    Yes, I agree that contracts should be respected... and when they no longer can be, all means and methods should be used to try to satisfy all parties.

    I just know that SS/MediCal/Caid/Care is a ponzi scheme *I* won't benefit from very much. Like all welfare privileges it is a great benefit we've had in our society. However, now the bill has come due with the first baby boomers already claiming SS bennies, and ALL of this largesse has been until now funded with ample fossil fuels and debt leverage...

    both of which will disappear any decade now if not sooner.

    Hedera, maybe the best possible solution for SS/Medi*/Prop13 is to agree on some terms such as reducing benefits over a 10-20 year window so that change will be more easily adapted to.

    And of course, controlling human breeding, charging massive tarriffs on trade to bring local manufacturing back and so on.

    BUT even if we did all of the above, we are still heading toward ordinary human poverty such as is enjoyed in Afghanistan, Somalia, Cuba, Samoa or elsewhere...

    What is your solution to the city's budget problems? I know ther eis no politically easy answer so our crises as a city/county/state/country will worsen until there is a great reversion to mean. Ordinary human poverty. I am sure that 100 yeras from now people will be living off the detrius of our industrial civilization and wondering how people used to get around, how we spent our time, what were people thinking etc... in fact maybe you'll see this reflected in art (now or future) just like art went very skeletal and "dark" after the black plague decimated Europe.

    Back to gardening, shall we? :) You can see my garden here, when I post photos next:

  13. You know, Ken, maybe we should restrict future discussions to gardens. You and I are not going to agree on a lot of other subjects, and your recommended solutions to society's problems don't take into account all the circumstances. You're very glib about how one should take care of one's parents; I just want to see you try it with an Alzheimer's patient, that's all. Speaking as a Baby Boomer, not yet collecting from SS, I resent the implication that I'm just a drain on society.

    I don't have a solution to the city's or anybody else's problems. I think the city should have done things differently; I don't know what they should do now. There aren't any good options. But I notice that YOU don't have any solutions either, except to sit and gloat over the fact that we're all going to be poor.