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Furloughs are a miserable failure

Today is a Furlough Friday, when the City of Oakland’s non-emergency services are closed to the public. Because of the Martin Luther King holiday, the City has a four-day weekend. Branch libraries will be closed on Tuesday as well. Oaklanders have come to accept that our ever-worsening budget crisis will mean a decrease in City services, but is closing up shop the best way to reduce expenses? The experience of furloughs over the last year, especially during the holiday season, has severely and unfairly impacted citizens, without addressing the long-term sustainability of the City payroll.

Closing the library over the holidays was criminal: it was in total contradiction to an important educational goal of the library system. When students aren’t in school, the library allows them to continue or catch up on their studies, and eases the burden on their parents. We didn’t need a Chronicle article to tell us how awful it was to have this vital public service completely closed exactly when it was most needed. The library furloughs are in addition to losing a day of branch library service every week, an 18% cut. Some Councilmembers like to say that they were able to balance last year’s budget without closing libraries: in fact, the libraries are now closed a lot, and of course the budget isn’t balanced.

For most people, the library (along with senior centers, rec centers and parks) is their primary use of the service side of Oakland City government (as opposed to the enforcement side). But for many others, losing access to various city services is a major hassle. Like other active citizens, I often contact Code Enforcement, the Planning Department, and Council staff. Professionally, I use city services, whether it’s the permit desk, the business license department, the bike/ped program, the facade improvement program, or Business Attraction. Removing 5% of city service hours has a commensurate impact on the private sector, and of course the City’s sclerotic bureaucracy can’t easily adjust to odd schedules.

Because Oakland’s budget problems are only going to get worse, short-term fixes like furloughs deprive citizens of needed services without providing a long-term budget solution. The City unions prefer furloughs to pay cuts because furloughs are theoretically temporary and don’t affect baseline pay, and because they want the public to feel their pain. But the public deserves access to services, not painful closures. If the City is going to downsize services, we should reduce the nature and breadth of services, not cut service hours. Students shouldn’t be punished because the City can’t afford its payroll, the highest in the nation according to the US Census. Oakland has a part-time City Council, but we deserve a full-time City.

Posted in budget, citycouncil, cityworkers, oakland.