Tonight at 5:30 at City Hall, again on May 26, and at additional meetings in June, Oakland’s City Council will be considering one or more of the three budget proposals submitted on April 29 by Mayor Jean Quan. Mayor Quan has named the three budget proposals Scenario A (the “All Cuts Budget”) Scenario B (“Cuts & Employee Contributions”) and Scenario C (Cuts, Employee Contributions& New Revenue”).
Make Oakland Better Now! (MOBN!) has combed through these documents, and still has many unanswered questions. The answers may be available, but as far as we can tell, they don’t appear in the budget documents. In the coming days, MOBN! will raise some of these questions and try to explain why the answers matter. Future posts will appear at MOBN!’s blog, Oaktalk.
How Did The Mayor Set Priorities in the Three Scenarios?
Whether written in a strong economy or in hard economic times, all budgets show priorities. MOBN! strongly favors the Budgeting for Outcomes means of budgeting described in David Osborne’s The Price of Government. Under this model, a city determines the most cost-effective and efficient way to provide desired levels of each potential service, prioritizes those services and allocates sufficient funding to each of the services in order of priority until all resources are exhausted.
This is the complete opposite of how Oakland and most other cities budget. Instead, the usual process is to take last year’s numbers, determine how they should be adjusted for changed circumstances (e.g., contractually required cost of living adjustments, known price changes, losses of funding sources, etc.) and then make cuts until expenses match revenues. The result is often a budget that waters down all city services and trains citizens to continually lower their expectations about city government.
Unfortunately, the Budgeting for Outcomes approach takes approximately a year to execute and we are far too close to the start of the 2011-12 fiscal year to consider it. So, if we must have the Death by a Thousand Cuts method of budgeting, those cuts must be made in a way that consistently and coherently tracks city priorities.
The mayor’s budget documents and transmittal letters send decidedly mixed messages about the City’s priorities. The Mayor/Council Priorities at the beginning of each scenario (which is identical to the list submitted with the 2009-11 budget) tells us that everything is a priority: public safety, sustainable and healthy environment, economic development, community involvement and empowerment, public-private partnerships and government solvency and transparency.
Some of the detail shows us that this is more of a wish list than a realistic set of priorities. For example, the detail for public safety–in a city that has seen its sworn police staffing drop by about 150 officers in the past two years–urges “an adequate and uncompromised level of public safety services to Oakland residents and businesses. . . .” And one of the sustainable and healthy environment bullet points is “Infrastructure: Provide clean, well-maintained and accessible streets, sidewalks, facilities, amenities, parks, recreational facilities and trees.” This language precedes a budget that eliminates tree trimmers, and anticipates very little street repair. Acting City Administrator Lamont Ewell estimates a capital improvement need of $1.6 billion.
Mr. Ewell identifies seven Budget Balancing Principles, two of which reflect at least some prioritization:
- Principle 2: Give highest priority to protecting the most essential City services. (Although he does not commit to what the most essential city services are); and
- Principle 4: Minimize the negative impact on Oakland residents, businesses and employees.
Mayor Quan identifies her overall approach to budgeting as “an attempt to be fair to all groups while trying to reduce the impact on our most vulnerable citizens, especially low income seniors and youth”. This begs another question: Is being fair to all groups a budgeting priority for Oaklanders?
Perhaps a better way to identify the city’s priorities is to look at how it actually spends its money and where it makes its cuts. Interpreting the three scenarios for this purpose; however, presents several challenges. MOBN! will dig deeper, and look at those challenges, in our next post, at www.Oaktalk.com.