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Comment: The price of peace

Submitted by on 1, October 20, 2008 – 10:00 amNo Comment

This Tuesday the City Council, in the face of some pretty frightening budget news – and, let’s face it, protracted labor negotiations and a potentially damaging election result – will discuss options for cutting next year’s budget, which is due to be signed by June 30, 2009.

The list includes closing a branch library, eliminating sidewalk repair and tree trimming services, and an array of potential cuts to public safety up to and including farming out police and fire services to the county.

Like many California cities we’re sure, Alameda is in trouble. Sales tax receipts are dropping, homes values and sales are crashing, and the state’s own fiscal crisis could mean more cuts from above.

With an eye toward the train wreck to come, the council put the property transfer tax-boosting Measure P on the ballot, in no small part because it looked like the tax most likely to pass. But now council members are saying it may not pass, and that it won’t totally solve the city’s financial problems.

Financial data for the past quarter show that Alameda is already $700,000 in the red, and city staff are anticipating a $3 million to $5 million budget hole for next year. And that’s not including the few million bucks the city may invest this year to help pay down public safety pension and retiree health care costs over the next 30.

The city’s ever-so-helpful budget pie charts show that police and fire services and public safety retirement benefits take up 66 percent of the city’s general fund budget. And this ever-so-helpful staff report lays out in almost painful detail how some of those dollars add up.

Closing the Bay Farm branch library, for example, would save the city $150,000. Eliminating a police lieutenant position would save $255,525. A police sergeant, $194,707. The Crossing Guard program, $162,000.

The fire department is spending $30,000 a week on overtime to keep all of its engines staffed (and I’m admittedly slow, so when you say that you’re fully staffed with 27 people per shift and you’ve only got 31, how are you three people short?). The Alameda Historical Museum gets $42,500 a year.

Converting three sworn positions in the fire department to non-sworn positions would save the city $215,000. Closing one swim center, $130,000.

The city’s retirement benefit obligations – $2.1 million this coming year alone – will rise by $300,000 a year if we continue to pay them as they come due instead of investing extra money ahead of time, according to a consultant’s report. If the city continues with its traditional pay-as-you-go approach, we’ll spend over $200 million on retirement benefits (most of which are for public safety retirees) over the next 30 years.

The city’s fiscal sustainability committee has recommended that we pay an extra $2.4 million this year to cut those costs down, with additional payments to be determined for the next few years. Now the City Council gets to figure out where that money will come from.

Everyone supports public safety, and you would have to be an idiot to not at least say you are grateful for the quality services our local police and firefighters provide, and we have a deep appreciation for the great job our men and women in uniform do for us. That said, we are facing an economic crisis where lots of people who have already didn’t have pension plans or decent health care even for right now are also losing their jobs, homes and savings. And their tax dollars are paying for these benefits.

So it would seem that in all these pie charts and spreadsheets and staff reports that we are being told we have a choice: Raise taxes and fees, or get ready to lose services that we all hold dear. Already, the mayor has said that we could see a special tax for public safety on the ballot in June. And we’ll all have to decide: How badly do we want these public safety services? And what price will we pay to keep them?

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