Alamedans admittedly have an island mentality. The city, in fact, is an island, but when it comes to unfunded liabilities and dwindling state and federal money for city services, it is no different from any other city in California. A fact, outgoing Alameda City Manager John Russo and his interim successor, Assistant City Manager Liz Warmerdam, often points out.
The sky is falling on city finances is basic conjecture from fiscal conservatives who have uttered hyperbole since it became very fashionable during the last deep recession starting in 2008. While times have changed, fiscal conservatives like those in Alameda continue to don their rhetorical bell-bottoms. In fact, the doom and gloom scenarios they continually offered to enact severe austerity measures on city employees have not come close to reality.
In one of the most shocking, possibly ballsy moves in recent East Bay government memory, Alameda’s soon-to-be interim city manager and possible candidate for the permanent job, performed what might be the city’s first mic drop by way of a PowerPoint presentation.
Following a lengthy budget overview late last month, Warmerdam went retro and sneaked one more slide to the presentation that had already showed the city finances in the black for the next fiscal year. The slide from a March 2011 City Council budget meeting that forecasted staggering deficits over the next five years. Forecasts which have proven to be nowhere near correct.
The meeting is so infamous in Alameda politics that it is called the “Turn Out the Lights” meeting following comments by City Treasury Kevin Kennedy that night alluding to Alameda’s finances being so poor that it would eventually be forced to the shut out the lights at City Hall.
Councilmember Jim Oddie recalls sitting in the audience and hearing the predicted negative $22 million fund balance for Fiscal Year 2014-15 offered that night. Fast forward to today and the actual number pencils out to a positive $30 million fund balance in Alameda. “That’s a swing of $52 million,” said Oddie during a council meeting in April.
“This was a dire emergency when it was presented to the council,” said Oddie. He went on to praise the previous council by name for their work, although omitting Councilmember Frank Matarrese, who returned to the council this year. “They did the hard work and got us to the point where we are today when they made significant structural changes to our budget,” added Oddie.
“This staff has done nothing but cut expenditures,” said Warmerdam. Yet the Alameda City Council’s austerity wing led by Matarrese suggested adding staff is still an imprudent financial option. When Warmerdam made what appeared to be a personal request to fortify the city’s virtually non-existent Information and Technology Department, Mataresse said the problem is not adding staff, but dealing with the cost of employment to the city that follows, such as benefits and pension costs down the line. He then urged for the city to outsource its IT Department to private vendors. This came after Warmerdam revealed the city only recently began using Microsoft Outlook for its email.
But, Alamedans continually fail to see just how good they have it as compared to their East Bay neighbors. Few communities in the inner East Bay enjoy lower rates of crime than Alameda, at the same time oddly fostering a vocal minority who protest larger than average expenditures to fund public safety. As opposed to Oakland where significant money is spent on a police force that routinely fails to live up to the increased expenditure, fiscally conservative Alamedans still bash its police and firefighters.
“We’ve seen the effects of cutting public safety in cities like Oakland,” said Oddie, who works in Oakland as Assemblymember Rob Bonta’s district director. “It’s something I don’t want to see here. We want to be a place where we don’t have to worry about crime, where we don’t worry about shootings, where we don’t worry about burglaries.”
Nevertheless, if the goal is severe austerity, there is no use in frittering away a good totem even when it becomes obvious the rhetoric is increasingly become staler by the day. Positive property and sales tax receipts are not trending up in significant numbers relative to long-term costs, said Councilmember Tony Daysog. “We’re still in a structural deficit. We still have to look at the state of the fundamentals on the revenue side and it hasn’t really changed that much and it’s not going changed that much going forward,” said Daysog.
“When I take a look at that projection…as compared to today, to me, the take away is ‘Well, if something can go just as well on the upside, well, guess what? Doesn’t that mean on the downside it could be just as wrong?’”