Tomorrow, the Oakland City Council will hold yet another one of everyone’s favorite events — a special budget meeting.
You may recall the proposals for balancing the FY2010-11 budget introduced for discussion last special budget meeting, back at the beginning of the month. A number of people who went to the meeting complained to me afterwards that the Council didn’t do anything. I felt bad for them wasting their time, like I should have warned them nothing was going to happen.
How did I know nothing was going to happen? Well, for one, the meeting was scheduled right after a furlough day and right before a long weekend, so like half the City was on vacation. I mean, just looking at the timing, there wasn’t even a pretense of taking it seriously. But the other reason, of course, was that they didn’t have to do anything just yet, and if we’ve learned anything from the last two years of constant budget misery, the Council will never, ever do anything until they absolutely have to.
Anyway, for those who have blocked the proposal from earlier this month out of their minds, here’s a refresher. The Council needs to close a $42.6 million deficit for the next fiscal year. Here’s how staff has proposed they do it
- Sell the Kaiser Convention Center and other City property. ($12.8 million)
- Cut some staff and services, cut some grants to cultural institutions, get some new revenue through additional billboards ($9.3 million)
- New taxes on the November ballot ($20.6 million)
The recommended taxes include an additional quarter-cent sales tax, an increase in the utility tax, and a hefty new parcel tax for police.
Tomorrow night, the Council is being asked by staff to do two things: agree to let staff start the process of selling the Kaiser Convention Center and begin the process of considering placing new taxes on November’s ballot.
What’s the story with the Kaiser Convention Center?
Ever since last fall, when the idea of selling the Kaiser Convention Center (KCC) first started floating around, I often get asked stuff like “Why do they think they can sell the Kaiser Center? Who would even buy it?”. Hell, if I had ten million dollars, I would! Seriously. The KCC is an amazing building, and the City is ready to give it away for like, nothing. I don’t see why they should have any trouble finding potential buyers.
The other common reaction, of course, is people being outraged that the City would consider selling off such a treasured public resource or whatever. I love the Kaiser Center as much as the next person, really. I desperately wanted the City to do something special with the space. There are some people in Oakland who wanted it to be Oakland’s Main Library more than me, and who worked harder than I did to make that happen four years ago, but you could probably count them on your fingers. But Measure N failed, and the Kaiser Center has been closed for five years and the City can’t do anything with it and it is this beautiful building just sitting there rotting and closed to the public and I don’t see the City ever getting it together to do something good with it. So I have no problem with us selling it to someone who can.
Who would buy the Kaiser Center?
Of course, then there’s the question of who would buy it. I’m guessing that very few people would be down with the City selling it to some developer who wants to demolish it and replace it with like a 100 story condo tower, which is the nightmare scenario you always hear from the people who are against the idea of selling. But pretending, as some do, that that’s the only option is just silly.
The only interested buyer I can recall being mentioned at any of the Council’s budget meetings is the Peralta Community College District. A couple of months ago, District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel said that they were interested in using the space for a library. I don’t follow Peralta stuff that closely, but my understanding is that, while they have a serious budget crisis in terms of funding operations, they also have a rather large pot of available funds restricted to capital projects.
I think a library would be a great use of the space if they wanted to do that, and in my dreams we could do some kind of partnership and the Kaiser Center would be a joint library for the City and Laney College. Sort of like what San Jose has going on with their Main library also being the library for San Jose State University. But joint projects are tricky and so who knows if that could ever get off the ground. It’s entirely conceivable that Peralta could buy the building and not go the library route (whether joint or solo) at all, and do something entirely different with the space.
It’s not hard to imagine other parties being interested as well. Indoor sports and concerts are two obvious possible uses of the building that come to mind, but I don’t think the options end there. There are some space-intensive non-profit uses that might be a good fit, it could work well as some sort of museum or exhibit hall. Who knows? Basically, I think it’s easy to see a lot of great ways someone other than the City of Oakland could put the building to use, so I don’t think there’s any reason to get all panicked about the idea of selling it. We’ll see what happens.
What about the police parcel tax?
Obviously, sitting around imagining paying more taxes for the same level of service is a lot less fun than daydreaming about all the cool things that could happen at the Kaiser Center. And Measure NN, the parcel tax for increased police services on the November 2008 ballot, didn’t come anywhere even close to passing. What does that mean for the prospects of another one?
Well, there are a few key differences. Measure NN was supposed to increase the size of the police force, adding both sworn officers and civilian staff. There’s a large constituency in Oakland for more police, but people in general tend to become accustomed to what they already have. They will often say in the abstract that they want more, but when faced with a couple hundred dollar a year price tag to get it, enthusiasm tends to dampen. Add to that the fact that there was essentially no campaign for Measure NN, and its failure really shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone.
Could a police parcel tax pass now?
Well, maybe. I mean, I don’t think it’s anything approaching a given, and it might be a pretty big stretch. But I don’t see it as totally outside the realm of possibility either.
For one, the City’s budget situation is exponentially more dire than it was in 2008. Back in June of that year, everyone acted like it was a big deal having to close a $15 million budget hole. When an additional $42 million shortfall was announced shortly after the City Council elections in June, that was really kind of the first taste Oaklanders got of the painful choices ahead.
Shortly before that election, the Mayor coughed up a proposal that filled much of the deficit with one-time funds and cost transfers, but left $10 million in cuts on the table for the Council to figure out. After a lot of heated debate, they cobbled together the savings without making any really awful service cuts. So for a lot of people, things probably just didn’t seem all that bad.
Since then, we’ve gone through more rounds of new budget cuts than I care to count. In the process, we’ve slashed library services and street maintenance, given up on routine care of like half our parks and public spaces, cut City employee salaries, and made dramatic across-the-board staff cuts Citywide, many of which have had devastating impacts on service delivery. And of course, used a lot of tricks and one time solutions in the process. The one thing that’s been protected throughout the last two years of constant budget cuts has been sworn public safety staffing.
There really isn’t any other choice
There’s not a lot left to do, folks. More accurately, there’s nothing left to do. At this point, police and fire is such a huge part of the General Fund spending, that there is quite literally not enough money left to close the gap without touching them (which also means giving up Measure Y taxes too). Unless, of course, you bring in some more money. Hence the proposed parcel tax.
So when you hear the dilemma phrased as a choice between more taxes and laying off police officers, it’s not some random empty threat. Will people believe that? I really have no idea. Nobody likes the idea of laying off police. On the other hand, a lot of people really don’t trust the City with their money. And why should they? They agreed to pay more money for increased police staffing six years ago and look what happened.
Hell, I do believe they need the money, and I don’t even know if I’d vote for it. This is a totally fucked up situation both the City and the taxpayers are in, and both the impossible budget situation and the lack of trust voters have in their City government are the direct result of a series of terrible, terrible decisions on the part of the City Council going back a number of years.
Do the City deserve more money?
No! Of course not! But who gets hurt if we don’t give it to them? Not them. Us.
I’m sure that at least some of you have suffered through those just truly hellish situations where a friend or significant other or family member gets messed up in some kind of addiction or other similarly self-destructive behavior and just keeps doing the best they can over and over and over again to just completely fuck up their life and every time they get themselves into trouble, they come back to you to bail them out. And they promise if you do, it will be different in the future, or maybe sometimes they don’t even bother to promise to try to change, they just insist you have to help because if you don’t something even more terrible will happen to them, and you have to do it because you love them and know you could never live with yourself if it did. And even if you refused to help and did just cut them off entirely, even that wouldn’t make it better, because you know the consequences of their behavior are going come back on you and other people you care about anyway, and that’s going to be awful too. And this cycle of total misery just doesn’t stop and it like takes over your life and you are just so frustrated and so angry at them and the world and yourself all the time and powerless to do anything to stop it because there really just is no way to end it that isn’t just too horrible to imagine.
If you’ve never gone through that, well, you are very lucky and I really hope you never do. But that’s sort of the way I feel about the City more and more lately. I mean, it’s not the same, obviously. It’s a million times less personal and on a whole different scale. But part of the reason why I haven’t been writing as much lately is because every time I sit down and try, everything I have to say is just so, I don’t know, angry, and I don’t want this blog to become just like an endless stream of crazy ranting but sometimes I have a hard time doing anything else, because it is just so hard to find anything positive to say. I’m just a happier person if I focus on other things in my life and don’t think about the City. Because this whole budget thing? It doesn’t end well. It just doesn’t. I know people want to believe there is some easy answer and a bunch of low hanging fruit out there and all this money that can be saved without anything bad happening, but please listen to me when I tell you thatit is just not true.
I know it’s awful to think about and awful to hear, but there just really is no good answer or magic solution to this. The budget is not going to get solved without making a lot of people really miserable (likely both taxpayers and employees) at some point, and I get why people want to delay the inevitable, but at the same time it’s just like can we please get this over with already so it can just be done and we can stop worrying about it and just deal with the carnage and figure out how to pick up the pieces and move on? And watching the Council spend two freaking years just spinning their wheels and going in circles and putting off action endlessly and making temporary band aid solutions and refusing to so much as start talking about what steps we have to take to begin the slow, painful process of getting us out of this mess — well, as I suppose you can tell from my rambling above, I just don’t know what to say. It’s maddening.
Anyway, if you can stomach it, the Council’s next special budget meeting (PDF) will be held tomorrow at 5:30 PM at City Hall. If you go, or watch on KTOP, do me a favor and tweet it, cause I just can’t deal with sitting through another one and will be spending my evening at the Oakland Museum instead. But I do like to know what’s going on.