Bruce Nye is Board Chair of Make Oakland Better Now!The opinions in this post, however, are his, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the organization. Make Oakland Better Now! will be holding an emergency city budget meeting to vote on the organization’s position on the city budget on Monday, January 11, 2010 at 6:30 p.m., at Oakland City Hall, 1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Hearing Room 4.
My guest post last week used about 1400 words to say the following: the city really is in dire financial straits, there’s no place to hide, there is no possibility of an immediate miracle and the problem won’t be fixed without political courage and leadership. The post drew more than 50 on-line comments. Other MOBN! Board members and I heard just as many comments off-line. A lot of people are angry at city government —as they should be — and responses ranged from the highly macro (e.g., this is the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it) to the policy-based (e.g., the relative values of parks vs. police, parcel taxes, bonds, etc.) to the very micro (elimination of living wage initiatives, furloughs vs. pay reductions, etc.). Many citizens are apoplectic over the very thought of another parcel tax, and some seem even to welcome a municipal bankruptcy.
In this post, I’m going to pose some fairly macro steps that just might be successful in keeping the city afloat by dealing with its most severe problems and starting to set it on the road to solvency and public safety. These steps have something to infuriate everybody. But work with me for a while here. I think we may have a unique opportunity to force the City Council’s hand.
Let’s start 1000 feet up. In my view, Oakland has two equally severe crises: a public safety crisis and a fiscal irresponsibility crisis. We have to start fixing the second one without worsening the first one.
The public safety crisis has three key elements. The first is the epidemic of deaths of our youth on the streets. Do you think it isn’t an epidemic? Try this for a point of comparison: The average murder rate in Oakland from 2001 through 2008 was 108. From 1980 to 2007, the average rate of AIDS deaths in Oakland was 88 (PDF)! Or how about this one: New York City has a population of 8.3 million, and, as of today, 461 murders in 2009. That’s right, with a population twenty times the size of Oakland’s, New York City has four times the murders.
Statistically, a resident of Oakland had one chance in about 3,800 of being murdered in this city this year. That, all by itself, is horrible. But it’s really worse than that. For African-Americans under the age of thirty, the risk of being murdered in Oakland is much greater than one in 3,800. No solution to the city’s problems that fails to directly address the guns, drugs and gangs that the murder epidemic can be accepted by a city that wants to solve its crime problems.
The second element is what Chief Batts calls the lack of legitimacy of the police department as perceived by many residents of the city. This stems from a long history of department misconduct, most painfully manifested by the Riders horror show and the resulting Negotiated Settlement Agreement. Oakland has talked about community policing and struggled to implement it for years. But the fact is, community policing can’t work in an environment where large portions of the community consider the police to be the enemy.
The third element relating to public safety is that routine police services are not provided to the middle class, to businesses, or to any victims of non-violent crimes. Not only is the police department unable to investigate residential burglaries and other property damage crimes; it has a backlog of 2500 domestic violence crimes it can’t investigate, it fails to investigate 2,100 theft reports and 200 robbery reports per month, and can’t even deal with people walking up and down residential streets waving guns.
Chief Batts believes that the city needs twice its current number of police officers to adequately address crime. That sort of increase is politically and fiscally untenable, at least under current economic conditions.
And that brings us to the city’s fiscal crisis. Just like the State of California, during good times Oakland acted as though there would always be good times. And it has continued to add staff – increasing city employees by 13.5% between 1993 and 2009 (before this year’s budget cuts). If anybody’s tried to squeeze more efficiencies out of existing staff, I’m not aware of those efforts (those of you who’ve been following city government longer than I have – let me know). And while the City Council had its first “emergency” budget meeting on December 17, there has been no sign that anybody on the Council is willing to make the kind of hard decisions necessary for the city to live within its means. Jane Brunner apparently wants the city to issue bonds (i.e., borrow money), the financing method normally used to finance capital improvements. Jean Quan wants to have town hall meetings. As far as I can tell, all other city council members have been mostly silent.
So, we have a nearly $19 million budget gap to bridge between now and June 30, 2010, a $25 million deficit for the 2010 – 2011 budget year, and a true nightmare starting after that, as the city starts having to contribute between $39 million and $60+ million per year to police and fire retirement (PDF).
Now, what about bankruptcy? V Smoothe’s excellent post on this subject here about six months ago is essential reading for anybody who thinks of bankruptcy as a panacea. Quick summary: it isn’t, and it doesn’t solve many of our problems. Slightly longer summary:
Even in [the cases of cities who considered bankruptcy but didn’t file], the flirtation with the idea of bankruptcy and financial uncertainty that caused it meant those cities lost completely their ability to borrow money for years. Oakland’s bond rating is in danger of downgrade as it is, and if we were to declare bankruptcy, we could basically expect to entirely lose our ability to bond for the foreseeable future. That’s disastrous.
But it isn’t just the bond rating we have to worry about. The stigma attached to being a bankrupt city cannot be underestimated. All those new businesses and private investment we’re so desperate to attract? If we declare bankruptcy, we can just forget about it. Those new office buildings we’re hoping to get built downtown? They will never happen. Bankruptcy (even talk of bankruptcy) leads to huge flight of investment and tax base, something Oakland may be even more ill-positioned to afford than our enormous pension obligations.
It’s also important to remember that bankruptcy is not a way to avoid drastic service cuts. Our problem at the moment is that we don’t bring in enough revenue to pay for the services we provide. Bankruptcy doesn’t change that (and in fact, would likely reduce our revenue base even further). It has the potential to help us avoid future burdensome obligations, but does nothing to ease the day-to-day pains of trying to operate the city. Also, it costs a fortune in legal fees.
And by the way, how are things going in Vallejo, home of California’s most famous city bankruptcy? Well, as of this month, their police department is down 28%, from 146 employees to 104. A similar reduction in Oakland would reduce our force to 578 officers. Does anybody think that’s a good idea?
Now, about the police department. There are informed, reasonable citizens in this community who say (a) “The police department already takes more than 50% of the city’s general purpose fund, and can’t seem to keep us safe, so the department must be dysfunctional;” or (b) “The city has already proved it can’t be trusted to spend public safety money wisely – we can’t give them another cent.”
Our new police chief, —one of the most highly respected police chiefs in the country —says the force is understaffed by 50%. As I said in the earlier post at A Better Oakland, I have no doubt there is waste everywhere, including the police department. But suppose Chief Batts is right? What if we really are understaffed by 50%? What if we really do need more resources to address what just about anybody would have to acknowledge is a public safety crisis? Imagine the calamity that would result from a significant reduction.
The only responsible approach is to err on the side of caution. Over the short term, a city in law enforcement crisis cannot assume the risks involved in cutting sworn police staffing. Over the long term, this beautiful city of ours cannot grow and flourish (and increase its tax base) unless it is no longer viewed as a West Coast version of “The Wire’s” Baltimore. So my proposal is that the citizens of Oakland support a three-year parcel tax initiative sufficient to fund the following:
- Maintenance of sworn police personnel at 803 officers
- Maximized civilianization of police department functions, including transferring all intake of police complaints, public information, press relations, clerical work, and all other activities not requiring the use of sworn, POST trained personnel to civilians
- A city auditor audit or independent audit of the police department to be completed within eighteen months of enactment of the parcel tax, which would result in a full accounting to the taxpayers of how Oakland Police Department funds are being spent
- The cost of putting the parcel tax election on the June ballot (which I’m told is about $800,000).
I don’t know what the cost of such a parcel tax would be. My guess is it would be somewhat more than the $88 per year Measure Y tax.
But we can’t let the City Council off the hook. We need to hold the council responsible for balancing the rest of the budget, short and long-term, with real cuts. Before supporting a parcel tax, shouldn’t we citizens insist the City Council adopt additional public safety and budgetary steps that give the city some hope of operating from a sound financial footing? Here are some possibilities:
- Adopt the $5.1 million in savings identified in the City Administrator’s December 17 report (PDF); (I’ve heard conflicting reports on whether at least this much was implemented on December 17, and haven’t yet watched the video)
- Implement savings of the remaining $13.77 million required to bridge the deficit by making the difficult, dramatic non-Police Department spending cuts necessary to balance the budget for the remainder of this fiscal year
- Agree that while savings realized through sale of city real estate assets may be used to balance future budgets, funds received through sale of those assets must either be applied to the city’s reserve or to investment in capital improvements
- Immediately begin plans, on a top-priority basis, to eliminate the city’s 2010-2011 projected $25 million deficit
- Undertake a program to civilianize investigation of non-priority criminal activity, as has recently been done in the city of Mesa, Arizona
- Immediately begin plans, on a top-priority basis, to address the city’s Police and Fire Department pension funding obligations and
- Implement a three-year-plan to reduce non-public safety personnel costs by 25%
The effect of these steps, and others like them, should be (a) to make the city safer; (b) to make it a more attractive place to live, to raise a family and to own and operate businesses; and (c) to begin raising the tax base, which, in the final analysis, is the only way the city will ever ensure long-term solvency.
We have the opportunity to save and improve police services. We have the opportunity to force the City Council members to do their jobs and make the very serious, drastic short-term and long-term changes the city needs. Are we willing to hold our noses and accept what would normally be an unacceptable regressive tax to give us the leverage to make things better? And if not, what other solutions do we have, and how do they pencil out in the real world?