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Island Talkback: Mayor says Alameda is solvent

Submitted by on 1, April 5, 2011 – 7:27 pm13 Comments

By Marie Gilmore

Headlines recently claim that Alameda is on the verge of “bankruptcy.” I want to set the record straight: Alameda is solvent. Like other cities in California, we face a very serious financial situation. However, we are set to make the tough decisions necessary to move our city forward.

These dire headlines stem from comments made by our city auditor and city treasurer during last Tuesday’s special council meeting regarding our budget. Like many cities in California, we have financial issues created by a variety of factors, including increasing health care and pension costs, reduced tax revenues due to the weak economy and a reduction of state funding. However, it was irresponsible for the auditor and treasurer to claim that the city will be “bankrupt” in two years.

We should absolutely discuss the city’s financial condition and the plan for going forward. However, it is irresponsible for elected leaders to toss around terms like “bankruptcy.” It’s like screaming fire in a theater: You’d better be right and have the right motives, because you can hurt the city you are trying to help. In this case, these statements could hurt Alameda just as we are trying to improve our city by bringing businesses like America’s Cup and Lawrence Berkeley National Labs here. We may very well make LBNL’s short list, but this episode will make our work harder.

And make no bones about it – we have some tough decisions to make. We need to:

· Make further cuts – and we were looking at those cuts even before last Tuesday’s meeting

· Address our contracts with our unions

· Involve the public in these discussions for their input

During the last two years, Lena Tam and I repeatedly asked our former interim city manager, our lead negotiator on those contracts, to move forward in negotiations with police and fire. We were ignored. Our bargaining units were ready and willing to negotiate and be part of the solution, but our ICM canceled many scheduled meetings and never pursued this issue. Our auditor and treasurer should have joined us then and focused on the most critical issue since their fiscal sustainability report was released two years ago.

While this important issue was ignored the last two years, this new council and this new mayor have been addressing these contracts and issues like our pension situation since January. But it is only one of the many solutions we need to solve our fiscal challenges. This is a problem that developed over 30 years and we can’t turn all of that back in one swing. But we are starting on the right track – in full public view.

The road ahead will not be easy. Our financial challenges, like those of most California cities, is very real. We will succeed because Alameda residents will be part of the process, one done in good faith, with transparency and public input. Now is the time for dialogue and hard work to make difficult decisions – it is not the time for irresponsible claims. That does not move Alameda forward.

13 Comments »

  • dave says:

    Like the Microsoft Help Desk, the Mayor’s response is technically correct but empty and ineffective.

    Yes, the city is solvent. For now. Yes, the city needs to reform. Someday.

    Much of this gets bogged down in the semantics of “verge” vs. “eventual” or “short” vs. “intermediate” term.

    The lion’s share of the city budget is compensation for public safety employees. While salaries are relatively predictable and manageable, benefits are not, and they are growing rapidy. The Kevins are indisputably correct that without reform, the city will stop being able to afford the public safety staff we currently have. It may be tempting to think that 2 or 3 or 4 years is “long term” but given how notoriously difficult it is to restructure publc employee contracts, we are effectively at 2 minutes to midnight. When that clock strikes 12 we face harsh cuts in public safety, or bankrupty to allow the judge to restructure the contracts for us. Each of those would be a painful disaster for Alameda.

    This has to start NOW and the mayor’s deflection is not helpful. This probelm requires both leadership and action. The Treasurer and Auditor have given much of both for the last few years, but they do not have the power that council & mayor have to effect reforms. Those 5 people need to start leading and acting.

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    • Barbara says:

      Just recently I saw a tee-shirt:
      Winner=takes responsibilities,
      Looser=blames others.
      I am glad that Ms. Mayor has great relationships with Unions. It will be much easier to get concessions now, because before our former interim manager did not have such advantage.
      Now I have much higher expectations from Ms. Mayor to take care of the business. Good luck, people will be watching you and your team for effective negotiations to cut benefits and salaries.

  • Jean says:

    Placing blame on others is not a sign of good leadership. I had some issues with our past Interim City Manager but she did some good for our city. She made cuts in the police department. She did take on the fire department which is still killing our city finances.In my opinion the fire department should be directed under the county like many other cities. I agree with Dave. Our 5 people need to start leading and taking action. Also, get out of the pockets of the unions.

  • LC says:

    This is number one on the list,lets keep this on the table until it done

  • Karen Bey says:

    I think the Mayor does what’s important:

    1. Sets the record straight, that “Alameda is Solvent”
    2. Explains how we got here, so we don’t make the same
    mistakes going forward
    3. Talks about steps she is currently taking to address the
    problem, and charts the way forward to resolve the budget
    issues

    Looks like this Mayor and council is set to roll up their sleeves and get busy making the tough decisions we need to move the city forward.

  • Adam Gillitt says:

    Marie-

    In “full public view”, you have abused the public trust, acted without any sort of transparency, and violated the City Charter in your City Manager selection process (what’s Russo’s financial experience, anyway?).

    Now, when elected officials and your own budget team tell you that the city is teetering on a precipice, you stick your fingers in your ears and moan that the message is “difficult to take.”

    You want more community input. You want more time. You want people not to “pick on” your benefactors in the public safety unions. Those are not options when decisions need to be made, and actions need to be taken NOW, if not yesterday.

    The Citizens of Alameda need you to stop acting like a petulant little girl. You got want you wanted politically. Now, if you can, deal with the reality of the situation, which is that our city is terrifyingly close to bankruptcy.

    We don’t need someone asking defensive questions to hide how unprepared she is to deal with the gravity of the situation. We need someone who has actually learned something from her time on Council, and has financial savvy, and courage to make decisions to save our City from the path it is currently on.

  • Karen Bey says:

    Adam,

    If you have your eyes set on a council seat in two years – this is your time to be part of the solution and not the problem. Consistently hurling attacks against elected officials you disagree with is not enough to win votes.

    This is the time for creative ideas and bold steps — what are your ideas for the way forward?

  • Craig Long says:

    Anyone elected to public office got there because enough people shared their core beliefs and trusted them to represent those beliefs when making the hard decisions. Once elected it’s time to make those decisions, not to keep going back to the public trying to make everyone happy. If an elected official is afraid to make those hard decisions, the voters have failed in their first, best, and most effective chance of providing public input. Lets stop over-analyzing and start doing. I feel our officials are wasting our precious tax dollars by hiring outside consultants that only tell us what we already know.

  • Jon Spangler says:

    Anyone who followed last fall’s local election campaigns knows that the state of the city;’s finances was and is a major issue, and that every candidate addressed it before the election. Our fiscal woes are anything but news to anyone who has attended a City Council meeting in the last 5 years.

    What bothers me about the rhetoric of the City Auditor and Treasurer last week is not their legitimate concern for our financial future but their unfortunate assignment of blame, which is profoundly unproductive. Calling public employees names and insulting them is highly inappropriate and it does nothing to address the very real financial concerns before us.

    Perhaps, as Jeff DelBono and Jim Oddie both suggested last night, our elected financial overseers should actually sit down with city workers and union members to work out solutions rather than hurling verbal abuse at one another.

    Talking things out cooperatively and finding solutions is truly “the Alameda way.”
    It is also the way our current Mayor and City Council have been approaching our financial difficulties. As Mayor Gilmore stated, “This is a problem that developed over 30 years and we can’t turn all of that back in one swing. But we are starting on the right track – in full public view.”

  • Barbara says:

    Solution? No more taxes! I am taxed enough already.
    Do not even think about more property taxes. We have the highest school tax in California; we have hospital tax and many more special taxes. Cut spending, cut taxes, create good business environment and leave people alone.
    Keep it simple and trust people.

  • Jay Schurman says:

    Have we ever studied how much we can save by having our town employees receive a defined contribution plans? I am wondering if 70% of our budget to fire and police seems quite excessive. Does anyone know what percentage similar size towns the police and fire in lower taxed states take up of the towns budget?

  • John says:

    Total Compensation for all labor costs should run about 35-38% of General fund. If we can lower it to 50% immediately we can probably avoid BK. Then we can work on lowering to a healthy percentage and start giving our citizens a better city.

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