Tonight, beginning sometime after 6:30pm, the Oakland City Council is expected to adopt the fiscal year 2013-2015 budget (item #9). The importance of the budget can hardly be understated: this document will control the City’s expenditures over the next two years. The budget is where the Council is called upon to put its money where its mouth is; more than any other document, it reflects the values and priorities of our elected leadership.
There are three budget amendments pending before the City Council proposed by Council President Kernighan; Councilmembers Brooks, Gallo, and Reid (BGR); and Councilmembers Kalb, McElhaney, and Kaplan (KMK). The three amendments have a good deal of overlap and each propose (at various levels) restoring Head Start, adding civilian support to OPD, adding blight enforcement staff, and restoring cuts to senior and recreational centers. A few salient differences:
- BGR would appropriate $6 million for employee compensation. KMK does as well but leaves the exact amount from that to be negotiated by collective bargaining. Kernighan’s proposal (which was submitted much earlier than the others) does not address employee compensation.
- KMK alone appropriates money to the City’s reserve and paying off unfunded liabilities.
- KMK proposes increasing civilian staffing at OPD substantially more than the other proposals.
- Kernighan and KMK restore affordable housing cuts and fund a nexus study to re-examine the city’s Impact Fees Schedule.
- BGR proposes substantially more to restoring cuts made to Head Start and to senior, recreation, and jobs centers.
These amendments are primarily paid for by additional revenue projected from the Real Estate Transfer Tax (a tax on the sale of property), “boomerang” funds (property taxes that resulted from the abolishment of redevelopment agencies), and “Triple Flip” funds (county property tax transfers).
Today we take a closer look at the proposed amendments to the Mayor’s budget in four areas: public safety, changes to the financial policy, employee compensation, and ethics staffing.
MOBN! agrees with Mayor Quan when she wrote in her budget letter that a “city’s budget is a statement of values, and a budget that serves Oakland must reflect our highest priority: public safety. That means investing heavily in both law enforcement and economic opportunity for our residents.” The Mayor’s budget proposes to build up the police force up from 610 at the start of this year to 700 officers by June 2015. All three amendments adopt this target. While increasing the force to 700 is a step in the right direction, as we have previously stated this falls far short of the 900 officers needed to provide effective policing in Oakland. MOBN! strongly urges that if revenues exceed projections the budget should be revised mid-cycle to more aggressively increase the size of the police force.
All three amendments propose to increase civilian staffing at OPD. MOBN! has heard repeatedly that dispatch and the city’s crime lab are overburdened, and that what should be routine policing practices like lifting fingerprints at crime scenes is not occurring for lack of resources. These are positive improvements to the budget. Between the KMK and the BGR amendment, MOBN! endorses the KMK amendment because it provides six police evidence and police service technicians not included in the BGR amendment.
The Mayor’s budget also calls for $4 million to extend the contract the City has with CHP, which has provided a boost to patrol as the police force is rebuilt. Kernighan does not address this item. KMK would reduce that amount to $2.6 million “as OPD academies come online”; BGR would reduce that amount to $1 million. MOBN! agrees that it is better to build up OPD than rely on outside assistance, but we question whether the City will have enough sworn staff to cover all patrolling after a few academies. MOBN! urges that the CHP be fully funded and, if OPD is able to reach full patrol staffing, the contract can be terminated and remaining funds added to the City’s reserve. If the KMK amendment is accepted, the $1.4 million in savings should be allocated to hiring more officers to help ensure we are able to replace CHP patrols.
Currently, the City’s financial policy requires all Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT) revenue over $40 million to go to replenishing the City’s General Purpose Fund Reserve, repaying the City’s negative fund balances, and addressing the City’s staggering pension liabilities. This sensible policy was adopted during the recession to address two problems. First, the City had no strategy in place to pay off its liabilities and has been kicking its debt down the road for future generations to pay off. Second, the policy was passed recognizing that RETT revenues are closely tied to the housing market (RETT revenue depends on the number of real estate sales and the sales price), which can be a volatile revenue source. Putting some of the RETT revenue in reserve would allow the City to weather the ups and downs of this funding source without having to resort to furloughs and lay-offs.
Unfortunately, two weeks ago, and with barely a few days of study, the City Council voted to gut this policy to give itself the unfettered flexibility to spend RETT on any “one-time expenditure.” That decision is coming back for a second reading today. MOBN! opposes this amendment: the City cannot seriously claim to have a financial policy in place when, once the policy would actually do what it was supposed to do, the City Council conveniently discards it. The City is repeating the same mistakes that caused painful lay-offs and furloughs during the recession. Nonetheless, since the financial policy amendment seems bound to pass a second time, MOBN! endorses KMK’s allocation of $4.5 million to replenishing the reserve and paying off city liabilities. We sadly agree with Councilmember Schaaf: “this is a drop in the bucket towards our looming $1.5 billion in unfunded liabilities, but it is the only proposal that puts any dollars towards this urgent need.”
The recession was hard on all Oaklanders, city employees included. There is no question that the city’s revenue shortfalls were balanced on the backs of city employees, in the form of layoffs and furloughs. In addition to eliminating furloughs, BGR proposes to give employees $6 million to repay a small portion of the cuts employees took during the recession. MOBN! agrees there is a compelling case to be made for restoring employee cuts; however, we agree with KMK, and the Oakland Budget Advisory Commission, that employee compensation should be set through collective bargaining and not through the budget.
The Mayor’s budget proposes increasing the staffing of the Public Ethics Commission (PEC), the City’s ethics watchdog, from 1 to 2 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees. This, too, is a step in the right direction, but not enough. A recent Grand Jury report found that the PEC is effectively broken because “the city council had not given the commission the tools necessary to address [ethical] transgressions that undermine the notion of fair and open government.” MOBN! urges that the Council consider increasing the staffing at the PEC — the PEC estimates it needs 5 FTE to perform its current obligations, still well below the 17 FTE at San Francisco’s Ethics Commission – in this budget preferably, or in a mid-cycle adjustment if additional revenues become available. The BGR amendment, which would reduce PEC staffing, should be rejected.
How to get your voice heard
Remember, the City Council works for you. If you have an opinion on how the City should be prioritizing its spending, come to the City Council meeting tonight at City Hall at 6:30. The budget is agenda items #5 and #9. You can fill out a speaker card in advance here. If you are unable to attend, consider writing the Council to share your views by emailing them here:
Finally, MOBN! is hardly the only group encouraging Oakland to rebuild the police department, another group of Oaklanders is circulating this petition demanding public safety be the city’s number one priority. If you agree, consider signing this citizen petition here.