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Alameda city budget, compare and contrast

Michele Ellson over at The Island has done a little piece on how the City of Alameda spends its money. For comparison purposes, she set out to find another city with similar demographics:

After narrowing the list down to about a dozen California cities – most of which, incidentally, are facing the same budget problems that we are – I ended up 35 miles southwest of here. What I found was a city that spends far more money on parks and libraries than we do – and less on its fire department, despite the fact that Redwood City’s fire department handles more calls than ours does.

Here’s what she found about Park and Recreation services:

Redwood City spends twice what Alameda does on its parks and recreation services, despite the fact that workers there have only 14 acres more of parkland to maintain. A lot of the amenities offered – two pools, a senior center, a teen center, a skate park, dog parks – are identical to those offered here. But Redwood City pays far more to maintain those amenities, and more to staff programs.

And firefighters:

On the flip side, there’s one department we spend more money on, and that’s fire. We spent $21.5 million to Redwood City’s $17.3 million, with $19 million for workers’ salaries, benefits and overtime to their $14.5 million. Our fire department is over 100 strong, compared to 70 in Redwood City. And our department has a lifetime health care benefit for spouses that Redwood City’s doesn’t.

You can read the whole piece here—and Ellson promises there are more details to come.

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Alameda firefighters making ‘robo’ calls

I got a phone call yesterday with a recorded message from an Alameda firefighter. The message was so fast that I did not catch the name of the firefighter who was speaking, though I think it was Mike or Mark. The core of the message was that cuts to the fire department (on January 26 the department has been mandated to reduce overtime) will impact response time for some Alameda neighborhoods. The message mentioned the Gold Coast, Bay Farm and Alameda’s West End and then urged the listener to lobby City Hall to prevent cuts. How much does it cost to auto-dial every Alameda household? Who funds these efforts?

I can’t help but think of the line from Obama’s speech Tuesday, in which he honored the hard work and sacrifices Americans are making to make things better for all of us. He referenced employees who allow their own hours to be cut so others may keep their jobs. That is bravery, no? To say, I will make do with a little less so others don’t lose everything entirely.

In a time when so many are losing jobs, losing retirement security, having their pay cut and otherwise struggling economically, I can not find legitimacy in the stance being taken by Alameda firefighters. There is not an infinite pot of money. Times are bad. Everyone should be impacted as budgets shrink…not everyone with the exception of some. Of course I wish it weren’t so…of course everyone wishes it weren’t so. But it is. So, it’s time to move away from the adversarial stance, an I-me-my orientation, and it’s time for the firefighters to work with the city to maintain emergency services as well as all the other services that make for a vital community.

As I have mentioned previously, Alameda firefighters make over $100,000 a year, with many earning 10 and 20 and 40 thousand additional dollars a year in over time. Alameda firefighters receive full, life-time medical benefits for themselves and a spouse after just five years of service. They are eligible to retire at 50, with 3 percent of their highest salary in pension for each year of service. Meanwhile, Alameda’s non-public safety employees receive only a tiny stipend (something around $100 a month) toward health care in retirement, and they are eligible to retire at 55, with 2 percent of their highest salary per year of service in pension. I am not, of course, saying that I don’t think firefighters should be well-compensated and have security in retirement…I just think that taking a hard bargain stance when the current system is so out of balance (so many employees now have no pensions, no health care on retirement…heck, no health care even while they are working) and when the economy is such a disaster is really perplexing.

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School board trustee Mike McMahon launches blog

Mike McMahon’s web site has long been the motherlode for school-district-related documents and information. And now he has launched a blog.

And while all heads have been turned toward the change in leadership at the national level, there are lots of fish to fry re the state budget and school funding in particular. McMahon’s site is sure to be a good resource.

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California budget woes abound

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to require state employees to take two mandatory, unpaid furlough days each month. Some state officials are saying no. You can read more about it here, here and here.

Sacramento Bee reporter Peter Hecht has this piece about how no one really seems to be paying attention to the budget crisis: “Warnings of budget ‘Armageddon’ don’t rouse ordinary Californians.”

MSNBC Story: Is California Dreaming Over?

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Alameda fire department cuts make KTVU

KTVU ran a story tonight on Alameda fire station “brown outs.” They interviewed Alameda firefighter Dom Weaver and Councilmember Frank Matarrese, both of whom have been opposed cuts all along. For balance, they interviewed a woman in a cafe, saying, generally, that tough times call for budget cuts and, too, they interviewed Mayor Beverly Johnson, who talked about the millions upon millions the city has trimmed from its budget in recent years.

While the story mentions the economic downturn as an underlying cause of the cuts, it fails to Continue Reading

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Life on the Island: Firefighter staffing levels

This week’s Life on the Island, the column I write for the Alameda Journal, is up online. This week it’s about cuts to the fire department, and how they’ll impact services for Alamedans. While on the one hand, no reduction in any public safety staff is acceptable—being less safe, having less access to quick medical care or having fewer firefighters on duty is not okay…no one wants this. But, in reality, these are horrible budget times and not just something, but everything, has to give.

As I write in the column, all city departments have cut back, police and fire by a smaller percentages than other departments. Alameda’s interim finance director Ann Marie Gallant addressed the fire department funding issue at this week’s city council meeting: “We don’t have too many options here. Other department services are going to have to be cut or you go into one time [payments from] cash reserves [to cover the fire department budget].” (All city departments, with the exception of police and fire, have already been cut by eight percent this year.) “Even if you were to solve it for this fiscal year, it doesn’t go away,” said Gallant. “It doesn’t go away until this city has more resources that are discretionary in the general fund to allocate for service levels you would like not necessarily service levels you can afford.”

More on the issue here.

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Alameda City Council report: cuts in firefighter staffing levels

There has been much talk in Alameda of late about staffing changes in the fire department. Firefighters have been leafletting and also developed this site. There’s also a Facebook group, “Save Alameda Firehouses!”

At last night’s City Council meeting, staff presented a report to council about emergency response time in Alameda and the cost of maintaining current service levels. Most city departments have cut their budgets by eight percent this year; the police and fire departments have been asked to cut their budgets by four percent. In keeping with this target, and Continue Reading