Tuesday, April 2 at 5:45 p.m., Oakland City Council begins its budget process for fiscal years 2013-15 with a budget workshop. Today, Make Oakland Better Now! begins a series of posts to help Oaklanders understand the budget and the budget process.
Earlier this year, the Make Oakland Better Now! board agreed our primary focus for now will be public safety. One thing we learned long ago is that budget facts drive just about everything. If you don’t understand the city budget, you can’t understand public safety policy. And if don’t fix what’s wrong with the city’s budget, you can’t fix what’s wrong with public safety, either. Put simply: this budget process is going to be a critical element in determining if, how and when Oakland can restore it police department.
With that in mind, we are publishing a series of blog posts on the upcoming Oakland budget process. We will start with some simple introductory facts about the process. Some readers will already know these, but we want everybody to have the same baseline knowledge.
After the introduction we’ll start getting deeper in the policy weeds. We’ll talk about the current challenges. We’ll look at ideas for fixing what’s broken both procedurally and substantively. We’ll talk about how to develop a budget that conforms to the city’s priorities.
After that, we will look at better ways for developing a city budget that serves Oakland residents’ priorities.
Basic Budget Process 101
Oakland’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30. The city’s budget constitutes city council’s spending authorization to the administration and all departments for two fiscal years.
Oakland’s City Charter requires the Mayor to present a proposed two-year budget. This occurs in the Spring of odd-numbered years. Council debates, modifies and passes the budget, which legally must be balanced and take effect on July 1 of the same odd-numbered year.
The mayor’s budget makes revenue assumptions based on historical patterns, observed growth, known changed facts and economic projections received from an outside consultant. It proposes spending based on a combination of past spending history, explicitly stated or implicitly assumed council policy and additional policies she proposes.
Oakland’s budget contains more than 100 funds. In fact, we once heard an interim city administrator state that Oakland had more funds than any public entity he had ever seen. Much of the budget wrangling involves the “General Purpose Fund,” (GPF) of between $390 million and $430 million. The GPF is largely unrestricted, meaning the city can budget it as it wishes.
Other funds are restricted, meaning they can only be spent for certain purposes. Sometimes the reasons for the restrictions are clear: By law, the parcel tax proceeds from Measure Y must be spent for problem solving officers, violence prevention programs, the fire department and other purposes designated by Measure Y. The Federal COPS grant may be spent for officers, but in limited ways. The PFRS tax override can be used only to fund the closed Police and Fire Retirement System, either directly or by paying the city’s pension obligation bond debt. The restrictions for other non-GPF funds have varying degrees of clarity.
In past budget cycles, last-minute council modifications and deal-making have been highly opaque, have contained large math errors and have resulted in a passed budget that even informed observers of the process couldn’t understand.
Make Oakland Better Now! credits the current administration for bringing transparency to the 2013-15 budget process at a level Oakland has never seen. As of now, Oaklanders who want to learn more about the budget process and the administration’s thinking have plenty of resources available:
- The Five-Year Budget Projection (the first meaningful long-range projection we have ever seen in Oakland);
- The Administration’s Report to Finance and Management on February 26; and
- The Administration’s March 27 report to Council.
What Happens Next?
As mentioned above, council will have a special meeting on Tuesday, April 2 at 5:45 to discuss the entire budget process. After that, the Mayor and administration tell us we have the following to look forward to:
Week of April 15: Mayor Quan and the city administrator release the proposed FY 2015 Budget
April 30: Mayor Quan and the city administrator formally present the proposed 2013-2015 budget to the City Council
Month of May: Budget town hall meetings to hear community input regarding the proposed budget-balancing measures, hear from neighborhoods across the city what their funding priorities are, and answer questions. Dates and times to be announced upon confirmation.
June: Formal city council budget hearings to deliberate and reach final decisions. Dates and times to be announced upon rules committee action.
June 30: Final passage of the budget by city council, as required by the city charter.