City Debates Priorities for a $3.2 Billion Budget

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Supporters of the Refund Oakland Community and Labor Coalition rally at Tuesday’s City Council meeting calling on the city to adopt a “People’s Budget” that prioritizes the needs of Oakland’s residents and workers. Photo by Ken Epstein.

Mayor Libby Schaaf’s administration this week released its proposal for the city’s $3.2 billion, two year-year budget for 2019-2021, which must be approved by the end of June.

Schaaf was scheduled to present the spending plan at a special meeting of the City Council, but she was “under the weather,” according to City Administrator Sabrina Landreth, who explained the proposal along with members of her staff.

While the administration says its proposal is designed to “prevent cuts in current service levels for Oakland residents,” Landreth and her staff emphasized that although the economy may be booming, the city is facing a severe shortfall and has limited ability to fund new expenditures because costs such as employee pensions and fringe benefits are increasing dramatically.

Under the administration proposal, the city would leave hundreds of employee vacancies unfilled and lay off gardeners who maintain city parks. Only $400,000 is recommended to support summer jobs for youth. The administration’s proposal mentions nothing about the amount of the largest budget expenditures, the amount that goes to the Oakland Police Department for annual overspending on police overtime.

A survey conducted by the city in February indicated that residents say the top issues in Oakland are affordable housing and homelessness, the first time in decades that police and public safety are not rated number one, according to city staff.

City Council President Rebecca Kaplan announced at the meeting that she will assemble  the spending priorities of council members and the community to amend the mayor’s proposed budget.

“As council president, it is my duty to closely review the Mayor’s budget proposal and to present my amendments,” Kaplan said. “On June 10, I will present the President’s Budget, and the community will be able to review the Council’s priorities.”

Meanwhile, a number of community groups,  the Refund Oakland Community and Labor Coalition, rallied outside the council meeting, criticizing the Schaaf administration’s budget proposal and calling for a budget that funds “Oakland’s city services, infrastructure and to hire local residents.”

“The city has annually underestimated an average of $45 million in general fund revenue over the past seven budget cycles. This means there is roughly $315 million in revenue over the past seven years that could have gone to fund public employee salaries, social programs, etc.,” according to the coalition.

Unemployment remains high in Oakland, “city services are deeply lagging, and city workers continue to go underpaid relative to local municipalities,” according to the coalition’s media release.

Some coalition members emphasized that the city can redirect its spending priorities toward the community and city workers rather than utilizing its income as it has in the past, pouring money into runaway spending for the Oakland Police Department and police overtime and programs catering to high-end real estate developers.

District One Councilmember Dan Kalb distributed his expenditure priorities at the council meeting. They included helping homeless residents, affordable housing, public safety and violence prevention, fire prevention and disaster preparedness, environmental services and parks and programs for youth and young adults.

District 5 Councilmember Noel Gallo raised concerns that “Illegal dumping is getting worse and worse and worse.  It’s out of control.”

District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas said, “We spent a lot of time surveying the public. In this particular budget we need to prioritize the things we heard loud and clear from our residents: housing and homelessness.”

Bas continued, “We are booming. We have been booming for at least a decade. And to be talking about not mowing our parks and these other reductions, it just doesn’t sit well.

She said under the Schaaf administration’s budget proposal, “We see that less than 2 percent is allocated toward housing. That’s not enough. When we see less than 1 percent is allocated toward homeless, that’s not enough.”

She also raised questions about whether the administration is underbudgeting.

“I looked at the last budget cycle, 2017-2018, where we predicted a $ 70 million shortfall, but we ended up with $140 million surplus,” she said.

“Two years prior, we predicted a $39 million shortfall and ended up with a $130 surplus,” said Bas.

“I understand being conservative, but the reality is that we’ve been underbudgeting, and now is the time to spend that money on our city, our workers, our services and our residents.”

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