Category Archives: city of oakland

Greg McConnell: Is Oakland Worth It?

This guest post was written by Gregory McConnell, President and CEO of the Jobs and Housing Coalition, which represents major businesses in Oakland.

Many Oakland business people are asking whether Oakland is still a good place to invest. As I talk to small and big business people all around the city, I hear the constant question. Is it time to pack up and leave?

Phil Tagami told me that several tenants have talked to him about leaving the Rotunda and taking hundreds of jobs out of the city. The small shops in Frank Ogawa Plaza report that business is off 30 to 50%. The Tribune Tower managers say they can no longer tolerate the fact that their building is frequently forced to close because Broadway between 13th and 14th Streets is usually the epicenter of unrest.

On Wednesday, a client attending a conference at the Marriott called and asked if it was safe to eat at Jack London Square, I told her no, it had been shut down. Another business group that has invested in Oakland brought its national board of directors to the Bay Area. They too had plans to stay at the Marriott and visit potential sites in Oakland for new investment. Instead, they went to San Francisco fearful of riots and unruly mobs.

City officials are assessing the impact of the occupancy on our fragile economy. They will be looking at reduced sales at restaurants, lost revenues at retail outlets, lost leases, and lost jobs. We will have empirical evidence soon, but for people who lost a lot in broken windows and shattered confidence, and workers who have been told to go home, or have been laid off, the impacts are already known.

All of this begs the question. Is Oakland worth it?

No, if our leaders allow long-term unlawful occupancy of our public spaces. No, if the police are forced to hide away in the City Center parking lot under a “minimal presence” order, thereby forcing property owners to arm themselves and risk their lives. No, if graffiti and broken windows are acceptable. No, if the city does not protect the people that employ the 99% and serve the residents.

On the other hand, there are many reasons to say yes. Oakland is still one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It is rich with caring, intelligent people who work hard and engage in community affairs. We have young entrepreneurs who are opening small businesses. We have new innovative companies like Pandora, Sungevity and BrightSource Energy that are bring thousands of jobs to the city. Large corporations have established foundations that give back, Kaiser foundation and the Rogers Family Foundation are just a couple of examples.

Most Oaklanders share the outrage at the failure of our economic system. It rewards a small segment and seems to ignore the plight of every day working people who are losing jobs, homes, investments, and worse, the optimism that has always allowed us to think that our lives will get better. The Occupy Movement has brought this to our nation’s attention. For this, we are grateful.

Nevertheless, we have to distinguish between our shared anger at Wall Street and the occupancy of Frank Ogawa Plaza and lawlessness in our streets. Oakland’s business people are not Wall Street profiteers. They are people like you and me who wake up in the morning and work to feed their families.

The owner of Café Teatro hires four people to sell coffee and sandwiches. She is not rich and she is not exploiting anyone. The owner of Rising Loafer is in the same boat. Well before the occupancy, she frequently talked to me about her outrage at corporate America. Tully’s supported the occupancy with donations of food and cleaning supplies, before their windows were smashed. Each of these businesses will be forced to shut down, and the people they employ will be jobless, if the unlawful occupancy of Ogawa Plaza and violence in the streets continues.

I believe that this too shall pass. It needs to happen soon. If it does, YES, OAKLAND IS WORTH IT. But, if we don’t do something soon to change our downward spiral, we may lose the city.

On Thursday night, I took visiting business people to Pican Restaurant. My mission was to help a local business, which has seen a 40% decline in sales over the last few weeks, while trying to give potential Oakland businesses confidence that the city is still functioning. I hope others will do something similar to support Oakland businesses that create jobs and revenues for this struggling city.

We all honor Oakland’s long history of promoting peace and justice. Nevertheless, we need to acknowledge that there is a big difference between supporting efforts to change Wall Street and the unlawful encampment that is destroying the city, our local business people, and their employees.

I urge the residents of Oakland to tell our leaders that support for changing Wall Street and ending unconscionable corporate greed, does not equate to support for an on-going unlawful occupancy. Please write the Mayor, the Council, and the City Administrator. Tell them to end the occupancy and lawlessness in our streets. Let them know that this caring community also cares about working people and businessmen and women who bring jobs to the city.

When we make that clear, I trust that our leaders will find a way to end the unlawful occupancy. If they do not, perhaps we will need to end the occupancy outside and inside city hall.

Jean Quan releases “budget” proposal

The wait is over! Well, sort of.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan promised late last year that we’d see a proposed budget in March. And one day before the end of the month, we’ve gotten…well, not exactly a budget. She’s calling it a “budget framework,” which, based on a quick perusal, seems to be a nice way of saying “We’ll figure it out later.”

Information about the “framework” is available on the City’s website in the three documents. First, a memo from the Mayor (PDF) outlining the City’s budget problems. Second, a summary of potential cut options by department (PDF). Third, a list of the service impacts of previous budget cuts (PDF).

I am looking forward to reading the documents more thoroughly tonight (this is exactly what I needed to break out of my blogging coma!), and will post in more detail tomorrow. But there’s no reason you guys can’t get started now.

Here’s the overview from Quan’s memo:

The projected FY 2011/12 general purpose fund (GPF) decifict is $46 million, despite addressing over $170 million in shortfalls over the last several years. However, this deficit is likely to be much larger due to signs of 1) weakening revenues in the current fiscal year; 2) expected State and Federal budget actions; and 3) mounting health care, pension costs and increases in the cost of doing business. The projected shortfall grows each subsequent year as expenditures rise and revenues recede.

The current budgetary issues are widespread, touching virtually every government service Oakland provides. The policy and management decisions which must be made to stabilize the upcoming budgets will be among the most difficult ever faced by this City. Unlike any other time in our history, this process is going to necessitate nothing short of elected officials, City employees and Oakland’s residents working together to make the required tough choices and critical investments in the coming years. Furthermore the financial challenges are simply too great to be remedied by any one approach in one year and all budget balancing strategies must be on the table. The size of the projected deficit necessitates the following:

  • Staff reductions;
  • New revenues;
  • Restructuring of City departments
  • Prioritization of services and corresponding program eliminations;
  • Additional employee concessions; and
  • Creative collaboration between local, county, state, federal governments and the private sector.

She requests that the City Council provide her a list of their priorities in the budget by April 8th.

Describing her plan in ever so slightly more detail, she offers:

The Administration’s balanced framework for developing its Proposed Budget is as follows:

  • $20-$25 million in departmental reductions (Attachment A) represents over $30 million in potential reductions);
  • $11-$15 million in revenue increases, including approximately $11 million from an $80/parcel tax;
  • $10-15 million in employee concessions; and
  • $10-$15 million in various other balancing measures, such as land sales.
  • Total = $51 million to $70 million

Some of the budget reduction options for FY2011/12 with significant public impacts currently under consideration are listed by department in Attachment A (PDF). In addition to the items included in the attachment, City Administration is also considering various reorganizations and consolidations of City services and programs that require additional analysis and costing. These items include, but not limited to the follow:

  • Centralization of general government functions;
  • Consolidation of payment centers;
  • Civilianization of Police Internal Affairs and other functions;
  • Partnerships with other cities and other agencies;
  • Facilities consolidation (including libraries, recreation centers and senior centers);
  • Elimination of all City vehicles other than OPD, OFD and heavy equipment;
  • Merging of City departments
  • Increasing certain fees for services;
  • Transfer of Animal Shelter services to other outside agency;
  • Installation of cameras on street sweeping vehicles;
  • Moving City towards a “Cloud Computing” model (which would allow most city documents to be stored securely on the web, instead of desktops); and
  • Partnerships with OUSD, County, and other outside agencies for program efficiencies

Of note, the attached options may not be the ones proposed by the City Administration, and additional options may also be proposed that are not included on the list above or the attached departmental pages. This list is merely provided for Council’s information to make you aware of the magnitude of the problem, and no decisions are necessary at this time on any particular reduction or new revenue.


Bruce Nye: What does budget reform look like?

Bruce Nye is a board member of Make Oakland Better Now!. Budget reform will be on the agenda at the joint Make Oakland Better Now! and East Bay Young Democrats meeting on Sunday, February 20, 2011, 2:00 p.m. at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, 3534 Lakeshore Avenue (directions). All are welcome.

Part I

At Make Oakland Better Now!’s February 20 meeting, we will be looking at ways our city could reform its budget process to make city government more responsive and more cost-effective. In posts this week, we will be focusing on two reforms: Performance Based Budgeting and “Price of Government” Budgeting. Both reforms have been used successfully in other cities.

Performance Based Budgeting

Oakland has been talking about performance based budgeting for nearly ten years. In the Budget Advisory Committee minutes from November, 2002 (DOC), it was noted that the City Council had committed to begin performance based budgeting by fiscal year 2005. And changing to performance based budgeting was part of the city’s “Moving Oakland Forward!” strategy (PDF) in 2003. Despite these discussions, the city has yet to make performance based budgeting a reality.

While there are many variations of the performance based budgeting model, they all have these features: Departments, divisions or other government units accept measurable goals for the budgetary period. They are given resources to achieve those goals. And at the end of the budgetary period, its leadership is evaluated on whether and to what extent those goals were met.

Here’s a comparison: Oakland’s 2009-10 and 2010-11 budget for its Public Works Department is here (PDF). In this budget, the department’s performance goals are described as follows:

  • Improve livability through sustainable practices for cleaning and maintaining streets, trees, sidewalks, parks and facilities.
  • Maintain the City’s infrastructure to meet current and future needs of our neighborhoods, support development and reduce the City’s exposure to liability.
  • Create a sustainable City through implementing green buildings, renewable energy and efficiency projects, alternative fueled vehicles, and recycling/solid waste services.
  • Leverage existing resources by seeking grants, public private partnerships and by enhancing volunteerism and sponsorship opportunities.
  • Foster collaborative opportunities with other agencies and individuals to improve service delivery.
  • Continue focusing on high-quality service and customer satisfaction to be the ‘provider of choice’ for our customers.

These are all lofty goals. But none of them are measurable.

Now let’s look at the City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city with twice the population of Oakland. Here is Milwaukee’s Public Works, Infrastructure Services Division budget (PDF). Even in its executive summary, the budget document is specific and sets out measurable goals:

OBJECTIVES: Enhance transportation options and existing infrastructure. Reduce energy use in city operations by 15% by 2012.

STRATEGIES: Reduce local street replacement cycle to 65 years.
Increase capital maintenance of local streets. Improve bicycle and pedestrian access citywide. Complete installation of the LED traffic control signals and follow the development of LED street lights. Retrofit buildings to increase energy efficiency.

The sections that follow tell the reader all the details, of what will be accomplished, many of them quantitative, and what it will cost in terms of staffing, salaries and wages, benefits, equipment, etc. If the system works as designed, at the end of the budget period departments and divisions report on how well they met their goals with the resources they were given. This helps citizens and city policy-makers decide if tax dollars are being spent efficiently and in conformance with the city’s goals and priorities.

Performance based budgeting is on the agenda (PDF) of City Council’s Finance & Management Committee at 11:00 a.m., February 22, Oakland City Hall, Sgt. Mark Dunakin Room, First Floor. City staff seems less than enthusiastic about performance based budgeting (PDF). Make Oakland Better Now! supports it, however, and urges Oaklanders to come out in support.

Good on paper, maybe not so much in practice

So. Last weekend, relieved that the elections are finally over, I spent a bunch of time catching up on meetings I hadn’t had time to watch during campaign season and trying to decide what I should write about this week.

One of the things that always surprises me about watching City meetings is what issues catch my attention. I mean, you look at agendas, and you would think it would be obvious what is going to be interesting to write about. Take, for example, tonight’s Council meeting. There are several controversial topics on tonight’s agendacriteria for awarding the marijuana growing permits, doubling the number of dispensary permits in Oakland, and municipal ID cards.

319 Chester Street

But watching the Committee discussions from two weeks ago, those weren’t the things that I found I had the most to say about. Instead, my attention was grabbed by the conversation about a little vacant lot in West Oakland, at 319 Chester Street, which is on tonight’s consent calendar.

For the whole story, you can read the staff report (PDF), and watch the video of the whole discussion below.

Basically, the City owns this vacant lot near West Oakland BART. The want to give it — well, “sell” it for no cost to a company called the Alliance For West Oakland Development, who will then use City affordable housing funds to build a house on it, which they will then sell to an affordable housing buyer, and then give the money from the sale back to the City so that it can be used to fund more affordable housing construction. Additionally, there is a job training for youth aspect to the construction. From the the staff report (PDF):

The Alliance for West Oakland Development, Inc. is a 501(c)3 community development corporation, established in June, 1999. They were formed to address the issues of rebuilding the West Oakland community. Their mission is to initiate, promote and facilitate the development of blighted areas of West Oakland through a Green Building and Construction Training Program. The program provides training opportunities for West Oakland residents and is geared toward “at risk” young adults (18-25 years) and is also open to all persons interested in entering the construction field.

So this sounds like a good thing, right?

At the Community and Economic Development Committee

So when this item came up at Committee, District 5 Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente is all “Um, so how does this make any sense when people can just buy houses for a fraction of that cost? Why don’t we just sell the damn lot?”

So staff responded that if we sold it, we wouldn’t have any guarantee that anyone would build on the lot, and also that the construction presents job training opportunities.

319 Chester Street

Now, I’m very sympathetic to the idea of doing it for the job training. But I found it very odd that there was like, no information about the specifics of this job training component in either the report or the presentation. I mean, if you’re going to invest all this money and the primary benefit is that it’s a job training program, wouldn’t you think there should be some more details about that program? Like, I don’t know, how many people it’s going to train? Even just a rough estimate? How people qualify to be part of it? Anything at all? It just seemed off to me.

So then, Igancio De La Fuente asked again about the cost. And staff was like “Well, we don’t actually know that it’s going to cost $375,000. Maybe it will cost less. And also, maybe property values in West Oakland will increase dramatically by the time we finish building this. So then it won’t be more expensive that everything else around.”

So then, Council President Jane Brunner is like “Okay. So we’re giving them $375,000 to build this place, plus $100,000 worth of land. So we’re talking about a $475,000 investment from the City?” And staff is like “Well, we’re going to sell it for at least as much as it costs us.” And Jane Brunner is like “You’re going to sell it for $475,000?” And staff is like “Well, we don’t know what we’re going to sell it for. If we sell it for $475,000, then yes, but if we don’t, then no.” And Jane Brunner is like “So you’re not going to sell it for as much as it costs us?” And staff is like “Yeah, sure. We’ll sell it for $475,000.” And Jane Brunner is like “Well, okay. That’s cool with me as long as all that money comes back to the City.”

So I don’t know if I’m just missing something entirely or what. But how is this house affordable if we’re going to sell it for nearly half a million dollars? I mean, nobody brought this up at the meeting, but it was the biggest question in my head when I was reading the staff report, which suggested that it was only going to be sold for $375,000. I mean, yes. I get that if we sell it to someone of a qualifying income level, then it technically qualifies as an affordable housing sale. But from a practical perspective, when you’re thinking about the actual goals of affordable housing production — well, I just don’t see how this fits with them.

So then District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan started asking about who is going to buy the house (participants in Oakland’s first-time homebuyer program) and what kind of affordability restrictions (45 years) there would be on it, and then was just like “Wait, how does this make sense? We’re going to sell this house for $475,000? Really?” And staff is like, “No, we’ll sell it for $375,000. Or however much it costs to build. Maybe it will cost $250,000. Who knows? The land is free!” And Pat Kernighan is all “But the land is worth money. And people don’t want to buy houses with resale restrictions when they can buy houses without them for cheaper. I do like the job training thing.”

And then staff was like “Yes! That’s why we’re doing it. Not for the money, for the job training. Also, it will revitalize the neighborhood.”

And then District 7 Councilmember Larry Reid was like “We’re going to do one of these in my District, too! It’s gonna be awesome!.” And then the Committee all voted for it except for Ignacio De La Fuente and now it’s on the consent calendar for tonight’s meeting.

Details seem to fall short

There are a lot of things about this that seem very admirable in concept. Affordable housing. Job training. Making productive use of vacant city-owned land. But you need more than a good concept. And the details on this thing — I just don’t see how they pencil out.

I mean, if we’re talking about selling a single-family home for almost $400,000, that doesn’t seem like a good affordable housing investment. Nor does it seem realistic to me in a neighborhood where comps are generally less than $300,000.

With no details on how many people we can even expect to be part of the job training, and what exactly they’re going to get out of it, I don’t see how we can evaluate if this is a good use of money for that purpose.

And of course, there’s the issue of money. The City is broke. We need money to provide services. So it seems like before we just go around giving property away, we should at least look into seeing whether we can sell it to someone who just wants to build a normal house on it, and maybe if we can get some much needed cash. Right?

It bothered me that the Committee was so cavalier about approving the whole thing. I mean, I guess they saw it differently, but when I was listening to the questions they were all asking, it really didn’t seem like they were getting very good answers from staff. There’s a tendency, on the part of the City Council, to act like if money isn’t coming from the General Fund, then we don’t have to think very much about spending it. But that’s a terrible way to approach running the City! And I can’t help but think that this attitude has a lot to do with the reason we’ve ended up in such a sucky situation with the budget.

Ignacio De La Fuente: Balancing the City Budget and My Position on Police Layoffs

Last night, at the first of Oakland’s two scheduled budget readings, the City Council voted to approve a range of recommendations with the goal of balancing the FY 2010-2011 budget. Going into Thursday night’s meeting, the City faced an unresolved shortfall of $31.5million in FY 2010-11. The deficit is projected to increase to $48.3 million in FY 2011-12 and then to 60.1 million in 2012-13. Already this year, the City has balanced $11 million out of the $42 million shortfall anticipated for Fiscal Year 2010-11, which begins on July 1, 2010. The balancing measures, much of which were prepared by me, Council President Brunner and Council Members Quan and Kernighan passed by a vote of 5-3.

Included in last night’s budget balancing proposal were cuts to every city department, including the sale of city owned property, eliminating all free employee parking, 5% salary reductions for employees making over $100,000, a 15% cut to the offices of all elected officials, and more. The full detailed proposal can be found here.

How we got here:

  • Less than four years ago, in FY 2006-07, the City collected over $471 million in General Purpose Fund (GPF) revenues, and by year-end had nearly $56 million in reserves. That year alone, the Real Estate Transfer Tax revenue was at $61.5 million.
  • In FY 2010-11, the City is anticipated to have only $10.4 million in GPF reserves by year-end, and is projected to collect just over $400 million in revenues by year-end. The Real Estate Transfer tax collection is now at a low $28 million. Collectively, this means that the City has nearly $120 million less in resources today than just four years ago.
  • Over the past four years, while the GPF-funded workforce shrunk by 12.5%, personnel expenses in this fund have dropped by less than three percent due to salary increases primarily for Police and Fire, as well as medical and retirement costs that have continued to rise.
  • As those who have been following the budget process are aware, I have been extremely vocal about the fact that we are dealing with a structural deficit, meaning that that it will only grow in future years unless ongoing balancing measures are implemented.

    Continue reading

    Free employee parking will be around a little longer

    Do you guys remember that whole issue where it turned out that the City was giving up like $400,000 a year in potential revenue by giving free parking at the garage near City Hall (PDF) to employees? And a lot of people really did not like that?

    And then the Council was like, “Hmm, this seems like a lot of money. Let’s have this come back to Committee where you can explain more thoroughly the revenue implications of all this, and also please look into providing a transit pass option for employees instead.” So then it came back to Committee, but with very little supplemental information (PDF) and a really half-assed attempt to address the transit pass issue.

    Pat Kernighan proposes no more free parking

    So at the April 13th Committee meeting where this was discussed, District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan came out and said that she did not think we should be providing free parking to anyone because it was bad environmental policy to encourage people to drive to work and subsidize their driving. I agree.

    And then the Committee was like, “Please bring this back with more answers and look into this bus pass thing more.” So then last Tuesday, the issue came back to the Committee (PDF) again. And at that meeting, Pat Kernighan started right off saying she had a different proposal than the one before them, and hers did not involve giving all these people free parking.

    Instead, she suggested that we take the employees who would qualify for free parking under the proposal, and instead of giving them free parking, offer them discounted monthly rates for parking in the garage, and the cost to them would be based on how much money they make. So employees earning less than $55,000 a year would have the option to park for $40/month, those earning between $55,000 and $75,000 a year would be able to park for $60/month, and so on, up to a cost of $140/month for employees earning over $125,000/year.

    So this elaborate pricing structure is like, way overly complicated and totally arbitrary and also just kind of misses the point of how we should not be subsidizing parking for anyone. But hey, at least she’s trying to address the problem in some way, which is more than anyone else on that Committee seems willing to do, so kudos to Kernighan for that.

    Employee parking fees must wait for another day

    So, anyway. Then this thing happened. I don’t even know what was going on here. So Pat Kernighan says she has this brand new proposal about employees paying for parking with this elaborate pay structure and everything, and the City Attorney is like “Um, hello! You guys cannot discuss this.” Because, you know, you totally can’t.

    So the reasonable, and I would feel comfortable saying expected response to that being pointed out would be for the Chair of the Committee to be like “Oh, yeah. You’re so right. We totally cannot discuss that right now. Let’s schedule it for the next meeting!” And then they would, and it would take all of like two seconds. Right?

    So. That is not what happened.

    This is. Jean Quan was like, “Oh, whatever.” And the City Attorney was all “Um, no. I mean it.” And Jean Quan was like “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.” And the City Attorney was like “Um, no. Really.” And Jean Quan was like “Yeah, well we’re not going to pass it today no matter what, so it’s no biggie if we talk about it. Wev.” And the City Attorney was all “Um…yeah. It doesn’t really work like that.” And Jean Quan kept, like, arguing with her over whether or not they were going to discuss this proposal. And the City Attorney kept telling her that to do so would be a clear violation of the Brown Act, and seriously — we are not talking about some, like, obscure clause or something. The fact that whatever is going to be discussed at a public meeting has to be noticed to the public in advance of that meeting is like, the basic premise of the law.

    And this went on for like, a minute and a half, and it only stopped because Pat Kernighan interrupted her and was like “Um, yeah. She’s right. Let’s just schedule it for later.”

    And I realize this is an odd tangent and I’m sorry for spending so much space on it, but really, this was just, like, bizarre. I mean, how do you serve as an elected official for like twenty freaking years and not get the fundamentals of open meetings law? Like, what is that? I don’t understand how that happens. And transparent government is one of her campaign platform points!

    I mean, I go to a lot of meetings. And a lot of times, you go watch these minor Boards or whatever and they totally do not follow the Brown Act and ignore their agendas and vote with secret ballots(!!!) and pull shit like that. And I get pretty irritated about that and really think their staff should stop them, but it’s not worth getting that worked up over because, you know, these Boards have no power and it just doesn’t matter that much. But when you’re on the City Council, that’s a whole different thing. Weird.

    What about a transit pass?

    Anyway. So then, the Committee was all like, “Okay, so now there’s this proposal to not give the employees free parking that we can’t discuss right now, so should we pass this plan for giving them free parking now? Oh, gee, I guess that wouldn’t really make sense then, would it? Yeah. Okay, well, so should we just pass part of this proposal now and then leave the rest for when we come back to discuss the rates? Oh, well since this is proposal is only about who we give free parking to and now we don’t actually want to give anyone free parking, I guess we can’t pass any of it. Okay. Geez. Hey! Didn’t we say something before about a bus pass?”

    So. I would not hold my breath for City employees to be getting EasyPass anytime soon. At the last meeting where this was discussed, the Committee had said that they wanted to move forward with the EasyPass program with AC Transit, but that they didn’t want to pay anything for it. So the idea was that if we did it, employees could take the pass or not, but if they did, they would have to pay for it. Of course, EasyPass is a pretty incredible deal, even if you’re paying the whole price out of pocket, so it’s not hard to imagine people wanting to take advantage of it. (At the last meeting, Pat Kernighan was like “Oh yeah, I don’t even ride the bus. But I’d buy it!) And the City is broke, so I didn’t have any problem with making staff pay for the whole thing.

    So what the Committee directed staff to do at the previous meeting, to see if we would be able to do EasyPass without it costing the City money, was to survey all the employees about if they would participate in an EasyPass program if they had to pay for it, So then at last week’s meeting, the Committee asked what kind of response they got from City employees about whether they would want the EasyPass if they had to pay for it, and staff was like “We asked the people who get free parking if they would rather have a bus pass and they all said no.” And the Committee was like “Yeah, obviously. We asked you to ask all the employees if they would do it. So when are you going to have those results for us?”

    And staff was just like, “Oh, well we weren’t planning on asking people and coming back to you with that. We were just going to do it.” And the Committee was like “Huh?” And Assistant City Administrator Marianna Marysheva-Martinez was all “Well, since the employees will pay for it themselves, we’ll just tell people that if they want the pass at the discount rate AC Transit offers it to us at, they can buy it, and there’s no contractual obligation that you would have to approve.” And Pat Kernighan was like “Um, isn’t there a minimum number of participants?” And Marianna Marysheva-Martinez was like “Uh…yeah, we’ll get back to you.”

    EasyPass Disconnect

    So, um, as far as I understand it, that is not how EasyPass works. The employer enters into an agreement with AC Transit to do this program, and it’s not just like, “Okay, now you get near-free bus passes as much as you want. Just give us a call when you want another one!” You’re supposed to have a site coordinator and work with AC Transit to promote the program, and educate your employees about their transit options and also you pay for the whole program at once at the start of the year, based on a number of program participants you have agreed on.

    The per participant price for EasyPass also varies widely based on the number of participants. Like, if you’re doing it for 1,000 people, the per pass price maxes out at $82/person, while the per-pass price for 100 people can run up to $115.

    It seems to me that if Oakland were going to do an EasyPass program, which I totally think they should, there’s actually a lot the Council needs to talk about. Are employees expected to cover the whole cost of their pass? Okay, great. How are we going to make sure we make a deal for the right number of passes and don’t end up having to eat a fortune if we don’t end up selling that many? Who is going to be eligible for the pass? Full-time employees? Part-time employees? Temporary employees? Civilian employees? Sworn employees? Only employees who work at City Hall? Or everyone, throughout the City? If they do it for staff at all different locations, is that going to impact the pricing structure for the passes, since all these different locations must be in a variety of different level of service zones. Or is everyone’s pass, no matter where they work, going to be priced based on the level of service for City Hall? Right?

    I mean, these are just a few of the questions that pop into my head about this. I’m sure that if I spent a little more time thinking about it, I would have lots more questions. The idea that staff thinks they can or that it would even be appropriate to enter into an EasyPass program agreement without talking to the Council about it is, frankly, terrifying.

    But what’s even more disconcerting is that they just do not seem to be taking the direction to explore an EasyPass program seriously at all. Listening to staff talk about the EasyPass program, which they had been directed to investigate, at both last week’s meeting and the previous one, it sounded a lot to me like nobody at the City of Oakland had so much as bothered to pick up the phone and talk to anyone at AC Transit about it. And while it’s entirely possible I’m wrong about that, I would be very surprised to discover as much, because the information they are providing to the Committee seems like what you would get if you kind of glanced at the EasyPass website and didn’t even it read it very closely.

    I mean, forgive my skepticism, but they couldn’t even get AC Transit’s name right in the most recent report (PDF), which, really. I mean, that’s just pathetic. And it isn’t like there isn’t precedent for staff being totally dismissive of transit options and not bothering to do any research about it whatever. I mean, back in January when the Committee asked staff about transit alternatives to free parking, staff replied with total confidence that the cost to giving a bus pass to employees was $90/month. Which is, of course, even more than it costs to buy the passes retail. And the premise in all their reports that out of like 5,000 people who work for the City, we should only expect 100 to use the program is just freaking preposterous. Anyway.

    Don’t hold your breath for the paid parking either

    And what about Pat Kernighan’s proposal to charge these employees different rates for parking based on how much money they make? Well, don’t be looking for that one on any agendas in the near future. Staff’s response to the proposal was that they will have to meet and confer with the unions before the Committee can talk about it any more.

    You see, even though free parking isn’t spelled out as a benefit in the MOUs, since these employees have been getting free parking for so long anyway, it can be considered a benefit that’s being taken away anyhow, and so you can’t change it without talking to the union first. When the Committee asked how long it would take before the item could come back, the response they got was basically, “Don’t expect to see it anytime soon.”

    You can watch the discussion below:

    So I guess for now, we’ll just keep on giving an unspecified number of employees free parking that we could be renting out to the public and making money off of, and maybe someday we’ll do EasyPass, or maybe not. You know, whatever. Gotta love the City of Oakland!

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    Another “special” budget meeting tomorrow night

    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.

    Lake Merritt Station Area Plan community meeting tonight

    Apologies for the short notice, but I wanted to bring your attention to a community meeting tonight on the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan.

    What is the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan, you ask? Well, it’s a joint effort between the City, MTC, BART, and the Peralta Colleges to plan for future development of this area:

    Lake Merritt Station Area Plan map

    Lord knows the neighborhood around this BART station needs a lot of help. There really is just, like, nothing going on around here. (Except for Madison Square Park, which is quite nice.) I mean, once you get up into Chinatown (much of which is within the planning area), it’s great — you’ve got activity everywhere, and people, and stores, and so on. But seriously, the immediate area surrounding the Lake Merritt BART Station is hella depressing and it is totally embarrassing for Oakland. I work just a few blocks away, but somehow the only time I ever find myself anywhere near there is when I have to go to an MTC meeting (which is almost never a fun experience). And then, the only place around to get anything to eat or even a cup of coffee is the MTC cafeteria! It’s just awful.

    A couple of months back, I was looking for a new apartment and having trouble finding anything in my price range, and dto510 found an ad on Craigslist for a place across the street from the Lake Meritt BART station that looked pretty in the photo, and kept harassing me for like a week to go look at it. And I kept insisting that it was not an option because I have no interest in moving to the middle of nowhere. He, in turn, insisted that calling the Lake Merritt BART Station, or anywhere downtown, the “middle of nowhere” was ridiculous, and eventually I broke down and went to look at it.

    It was horrible! The building was disgusting and covered with graffiti. Across the street on one side of the apartment was the BART Station, and then across the street on the other side was a vacant lot filled with shipping containers! Besides Laney College and the soon-to-be-reopened Oakland Museum, the neighborhood is a wasteland, and a stunning example of Oakland’s abject failure to take any advantage whatsoever of our assets and resources.

    Anyway, so the idea behind this Station Area Plan, which is being paid for by an MTC grant, is to figure out how to deal with this area so that it is no longer a wasteland. Or, as the City puts it:

    The City of Oakland, BART and the Peralta Community College District, through a grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, have come together to prepare a Station Area Plan for the area around the Lake Merritt BART Station. The Plan will consider land use, buildings, design, circulation, BART improvements, streetscape improvements, parks and public spaces. It will identify actions the City and the other public agencies should take to improve the area, and it will establish regulations for development projects on private property. The project also involves the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report for the Station Area Plan.

    The planning area is a one-half mile radius around the Lake Merritt BART Station, which encompasses Chinatown, Laney College, civic buildings of Alameda County and Oakland and the channel connecting Lake Merritt to the estuary. Many diverse residents, businesses and students make up the community of this area, and Chinatown functions as a citywide center for the Asian community. The Station Area Plan must address the needs of the community, as well as the needs of BART related to ridership, and the needs of the College District related to education and maximizing the use of their land. BART has stated that it envisions the area transitioning from its current status as an “Urban Neighborhood Station” to a “Regional Center” station type. Completing the environmental review process is also a critical component of the project, so that issues are resolved and development can proceed by tiering off the environmental analysis.

    Some of the key objectives of the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan, which will continue to be developed and refined throughout the planning process, include:

    • Increase use of non-automobile modes of transportation, including walking, bicycling, bus, BART, carpooling, ridesharing and other options; and reduce auto use.
    • Increase the housing supply, especially affordable housing for low-income residents. Specifically increase the amount of housing around the BART station.
    • Increase jobs and improve access to jobs along the transit corridor.
    • Provide services and retail options in the station area.
    • Identify additional recreation and open space opportunities

    Finally, the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan must provide an impetus for real development projects and specific public improvements. The plan should generate interest, enthusiasm and consensus about new development in the area and establish priorities for public improvement projects.

    Tonight is the first of a series of community meetings on the plan, and will be focused on identifying “community goals and key issues of concern.” As with any planning effort, there are a lot of different interest groups with a stake in the final plan. Smart growth advocates want density, affordable housing advocates want affordable housing, preservationists want to make sure that none of the horrible, rotting Victorians in the area are ever replaced with something better, and so on.

    Perhaps you find yourself in agreement with some of the more organized advocacy groups. Perhaps you have your own ideas of what should happen in this part of town. Either way, it’s good to get your thoughts in as early in the process as possible. So if you’re not doing anything tonight, you may want to head on down to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission Auditorium at 101 8th Street at 6 PM and share your thoughts. And I promise I’ll do a better job giving notice of future meetings.

    Oakland: “Transit-first” only on paper

    But not the kind of paper they use to print bus passes.

    Do you guys remember a couple months ago when the City Council was talking about how they could bring in some extra revenue by limiting the amount of City employees who got free parking in City garages and renting those spaces out to the public instead? Except that the list was like, really not very limited (see the list here) and it turned out that all that free employee parking is costing the City like $400,000 a year?

    So when this came to the Council, District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan asked for the free parking issue to return to Committee, and that she would like staff to address more of the revenue implications of all the free parking, say what the monthly charge at the garages are, and explain whether there are any employees who have free parking guaranteed by their collective bargaining agreement. Also, they were going to look into the option of providing some sort of transit pass for City employees. Which makes sense, right? After all, we have terrible budget problems. And we have been officially a “transit first” City since 1996. So giving employees transit passes instead of free parking spaces that cost the City money makes a lot of sense and would seem to be consistent with adopted City of Oakland policy. Right?

    Well, maybe not. Perhaps that logic exists only in my head. The free parking issue returns to Committee on Tuesday. The new report (PDF) offers none of the revenue related information requested — not even a passing reference to the $400,000 in forgone revenue that was stated at the previous committee meeting. Instead, it talks about a marketing campaign the Parking Division is going to start to advertise the newly freed up parking spaces on the upper floors of the Clay Street garage.

    As for the transit alternative, well, it’s hard to imagine how that idea could have been taken less seriously. From the report (PDF):

    In February, City employees with parking privileges were asked if they would be interested in receiving a free public transit pass in lieu of free parking benefits. Of the 154 who responded to a survey, 8 indicated interest and 146 did not. The most frequently cited reason for not using public transit was that employee worked late hours, need their vehicle during the day to perform site visits and other City work, make side trips before and after work such as day care, or that public transit was not convenient to their place of residence.

    While current interest among City employees seems to be low, staff nevertheless explored the option of establishing a transit pass program in the City, at the request of the City Council. Staff identified three transit options provided by other adjacent municipalities. Oakland already has in place one of the three programs and may offer additional options if there is sufficient interest.

    • AC Transit Easy Pass program. Under this program, the City can purchase AC Traqnsit passes at a discounted rate. AC Transit requires that a minimum of 100 employees participate in order to implement the program. The discount increases as the volume of passes purchased increase. For 100 to 500 employees participating in the program, the City would pay between $77 and $115 per year per pass. If the City purchase 100 passes at $115, the annual cost to the City would be $11,5000.
    • Employee transportation accounts. Some municipalities crease transit accounts into which a specific dollar amount is deposited that employees can use to pay for transportation alternatives, such as BART tickets, van pool, bus passes, bicycle commuting or paid parking. The City of Berkeley, for example, deposits $20 each month into an account that employees can use towards the transportation option the employee chooses.
    • Commuter Benefit Program. Allows an employee the opportunity to set aside pre-taxed dollars that are specifically designated for utilizing mass transit. The City of Oakland already has this program available for its employees.

    What’s that, you say? You asked 150 people if they would rather have free parking or a bus pass, and most of them didn’t say a bus pass? No way. I’m shocked.

    Oh, except I’m not at all. It doesn’t take a Masters Degree in Transportation Planning to figure out that if you make driving cheaper and easier than other forms of transportation, people will choose to drive instead of taking the bus.

    There is simply no excuse for the amount of free parking the City gives away, especially in light of the devastating cuts to basic services they’ve been making for two years, and will continue to make. If they want to reserve parking spaces for certain employees, and those employees want to pay for a reserved space, that’s fine.

    The report also completely misses the entire point of an EasyPass program, which is that you give the passes to everybody. Not just people you would otherwise give free parking to. The ridiculous theoretical Easy Pass program described in the report essentially comes down to buying bus passes for the City Council and their staff, plus Department heads. What a joke. A Citywide EasyPass program for employees would likely cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000 a year. Which, for the math challenged, is $100,000 less than the cost of giving away all this parking.

    If cost is still an issue, there are ways to reduce the financial impact of the program. For example, instead of giving all employees the Easy Pass, the City could offer it at cost or half-cost to anyone who wants it. And not offer any free parking. This would result in a slightly higher per-pass price due to a lower number of participants, but I guarantee you that when you go around offering unlimited bus passes to people at $100 per year (versus $80 per month), you’re going to get a lot of takers.

    The dismissive attitude towards a simple measure that will encourage transit use among City employees, one that is already in place and unbelievably successful in Berkeley and Alameda, is truly disheartening.

    The Council is always claiming they support public transit and want to encourage people to use public transit and that they love transit oriented development and blah blah blah blah blah. But change begins at home. Apparently, in the City of Oakland, “transit first” is really nothing more than a catchy slogan.

    The Finance Committee meets at 11 AM (PDF) next Tuesday, April 13th. Contact info for members below:

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    Bruce Nye: CitiStat is The Best Thing That Could Happen to Government Accountability in Oakland. But Not Now.

    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.

    So, has everybody seen dramatizations of police department CompStat meetings on “The Wire” and other cop drama shows? These make for great television. A bunch of high-level police department officials get together in a room. The police commissioner or chief grills some poor division commander who stands alone at a podium sweating and trying to answer questions about his division’s inadequacies, while everybody else watches him squirm.

    CompStat was invented in New York City, and in real life, it’s a process by which crime statistics are collected, computerized, mapped and disseminated quickly. Officers are held responsible for the crime in their areas. There’s more about CompStat here and lots of other places on the internet, and since you read A Better Oakland, this is probably all old news to you.

    Then, there is CitiStat, the non-law enforcement version of CompStat used to hold city department management responsible for providing city services and for managing their departments. The most well-known version of CitiStat was developed in Baltimore (the same city that brought you The Wire) ten years ago. Baltimore has what Oakland city staff has repeatedly described as the “gold standard” for CitiStat programs.

    In 2000, Baltimore took the CompStat model and turned it into a way to track performance of non-law enforcement city services. The mayor promised that potholes would be fixed in 48 hours and that they’d track responses to other city service requests.

    To do this, they have day and night 311 system fielding all of the city’s non-emergency service calls. They have a software package designed for Baltimore by Motorola (and now available off the shelf) that issues service ticket numbers, tracks every call, tracks resolutions and, most importantly, generates performance data.

    Baltimore has bi-weekly CompStat-style meetings for every program under CitiStat review, in a dedicated CitiStat room, where the chair of the meeting grills department heads and managers whose programs aren’t meeting performance standards. He or she also exacts commitments for improvement, and brings department heads and managers back to report on progress. Meetings can be chaired by the mayor, or, more likely, by a deputy mayor who has full authority from the mayor to obtain compliance. To make sure directors and managers are telling the truth about their compliance, the mayor’s office sends staff out with cameras on a regular basis to look for potholes not repaired, graffiti not removed, trees not trimmed, etc.

    CitiStat Meeting

    Doesn’t that sound great? Doesn’t that sound like exactly what Oakland needs to hold department heads accountable? Can you imagine living in a city where the mayor regularly meets with city department heads and mayors, and measures performance based on real, meaningful data? And where residents get city services by calling a 311 line instead of by hounding city council staffers? It sounds like a pretty terrific accountability measure to me.

    Well, an Oakland version — dubbed “OakStat — was recommended in the famous Robert Bobb/PFM Group report (PDF) in January of last year. Since that time, the City Administrator’s office has submitted a number of reports on the subject to council’s Finance & Management Committee, which you can see here (PDF), here (PDF), here (PDF), and here (PDF).

    Earlier this month, Marc Broady, a staffer from the Maltimore Mayor’s office came to Finance & Management to put on his Power Point presentation about CitiStat, and everybody in attendance was pretty well blow away. Here’s the presentation:

    As at many council meetings, it was a little bit hard to discern exactly what the committee decided when they voted (I watched that part of the meeting twice, and I’m still not sure), but it was something like “have staff put together a task force to figure out a way to implement this as to public works and public safety and get it all done by this summer, or right after Labor Day at the latest, and do it with existing resource.s And report back to council. And this will save us lots of money.”

    Well, I’m sorry, but WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Council should take a hard look at a terrific fifty page report (PDF) by Robert D. Behn, from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, “What All Mayors Would Like To Know About Baltimore’s Performance Strategy.” Staff gave council members the introductory pages, but they really need to see the entire thing. If they do, they will learn the following:

    Q: What exactly is CitiStat?

    A: A leadership strategy!

    Citistat is a leadership strategy that a mayor can employ to mobilize city agencies to produce specific results…CitiStat is more than meetings and data. It requires:

    • Targets (which provide benchmarks for judging successes and failure)
    • Tactics (which focus organizational efforts on achieving the targets)
    • Data (which track the performance of agencies and subunits)
    • Analysis (which, using the data, identifies the causes of both success and failure)
    • Questions (which reveal what agencies are doing and not doing to achieve their targets)
    • Learning (which come from these analyses, questions, and answers)
    • Collaboration (which help the mayor’s staff and the agency’s director and managers to determine what to do next)
    • Experimentation (which creates new ways of achieving success)
    • Meetings (which regularly review agency progress, targets, analyses, and strategies)
    • Thinking (which can suggest how the entire approach can be improved)

    If a mayor and his leadership team are doing these things consciously, persistently, imaginatively, and skillfully, they are undoubtedly doing somethinat that — even if it does not have the outward appearance of Baltimore’s CitiStat — accomplishes the CitiStat’s purpose: to improve the performance of city government.

    Q: What kind of commitment does CitiStat require?

    A: A real, serious commitment.

    No mayor should initiate the creation of CitiStat without fully recognizing the implications of the undertaking. After all, most city employees and many managers of city agencies will quickly interpret it as another management fad. They’ve seen it all: management by objectives and total quality management, zero-based budgeting and performance-based budgeting, the balanced scorecard and the organizations dashboards. They aren’t going to get too excited about the mayor’s latest little brainstorm (or brief mental shower). From experience, they have determined how best to cope with the latest mayor’s random neuron firings. Why bother, they have learned, when this will soon disappear, to be replaced by another mayoral impulse? Thus, a mayor who wishes to establish CitiStat not only needs to make a real commitment; he or she also needs to dramatize this commitment.

    Q: Should the CitiStat office be part of the budget department?

    A: No.

    Baltimore emphasizes that if CitiStat is run out of a city’s budget office, the sole measure of concern will quickly become dollars saved. The budget office has one set of purposes: to create the mayor’s annual budget proposal; to ensure that the city’s expenditures are consistent with its sources of revenue; to ensure that all funds are spent exactly as appropriated; to ensure that the city does not overspend its budget. For a city budget office, spending less is always good. The budget office would, inevitably, want to get the same bang for fewer bucks. The budget office might even be happier with a smaller bang for fewer bucks.

    In contrast, the CitiStat office has a different set of purposes. Primarily, the CitiStat office wants to improve the results produced by city agencies.

    Q: What is the role of the members of the city council?

    A: Not much.

    In other words, and as Baltimore’s Broady pointed out at the committee meeting, CitiStat isn’t a software program or a reorganization; it is, instead, a leadership strategy and an entire new way of looking at data. And as Vice-President Biden mught put it, this is a big deal.

    What staff is working on now is an incremental start called “CleanStat” (for Public Works and Parks and Rec) and “SafetyStat” (for police and fire). And from council members’ comments at Finance & Management, it is clear they are looking at this as a way to save lots of money. Furthermore, directly contracy to the Baltimore recommendations, OakStat reports will go to Council, and the process will be staffed with Budget Office analysts.

    There is nothing wrong with incrementalism, particularly in these tough economic times. And I’m certainly in favor of saving money (Baltimore claims to have saved $350 million through CitiStat in ten years). But this isn’t what CitiStat is about.

    CitiStat is a strategy to lead city departments to improve their performance by obtaining, tracking and working with performance data, by demonstrating a commitment to accountability that show directors and managers they either have to get with the program or get out, and by having the mayor demonstrate every day that the city means business. Baltimore’s CitiStat calendar for January 2010 shows 19 CitiStat meetings in the dedicated CitiStat room. Oakland is looking at one meeting a month run by the City Administrator in a city conference room.

    Oakland may have only one opportunity to do this right; a failed CitiStat program will ensure that the process is looked at as just another management fad. CitiStat can work under the leadership of a strong mayor in a strong mayor form of government. That obviously won’t happen with the current mayor. The best hope for having a CitiStat program that brings accountability and performance improvement to Oakland is for a truly strong mayor to implement it, and to make sure everybody knows that CitiStat is the most important management initiative in the mayor’s office. Until that happens, council should put this one on hold.

    (Thanks to Baltimore’s Marc Broady for sending the Power Point slides.)

    Watch the full video of the Committee’s CitiStat discussion below:

    How should Oakland decide where to underground utilities?

    I don’t suppose you guys have been following this whole undergrounding controversy in Piedmont?

    I have more than enough on my plate trying to keep up with what’s going on in Oakland, so I have to admit, I don’t pay a ton of attention to what goes on in our wealthier neighboring cities where nobody lives. But a few months ago, as I was paging through a very large folder of feeds, a post in Piedmont Neighborhood News caught my eye. It began with a big, bold quote from their City Administrator from a recent Council meeting:

    Such an extraordinary, such an unpleasant, such a difficult recommendation. The recommendation is mine and I am responsible for it.

    How’s that for melodramatic? You understand why I had couldn’t help but click through and read the whole thing.

    Anyway, so it turns out that this incredibly difficult decision that the City Administrator had to make was about whether or not Piedmont should spend one third of its general fund to subsidize the undergrounding of utility lines in front of 144 houses in the fancy part of Piedmont. No, I am not making that up. And yes, his recommendation was to go for it.

    So ever since then, I have just not been able to get enough of this ridiculous controversy. Basically, what happened was that this neighborhood, “Piedmont Hills,” decided they wanted their power lines undergrounded. So they made an assessment district to pay for their undergrounding, and the project went out to bid. The bids that came back ranged from $1.5 million to $2.5 million. I am sure it will not surprise to learn that the $1.5 million bid was choosen.

    So this company got to work on the undergrounding, and were shocked when they started digging and discovered that the ground there is actually rock. Um, yeah.

    So then, this company is all “Oh, it’s going to cost another million dollars to dig through all this rock” and the people of Piedmont Hills were all like “Yeah, we don’t want to pay a million dollars” and went out and raised $30,000 instead. So the City Administrator was like well we have to finish it (PDF) one way or another. They would find the money from their General Fund reserve.

    Reserve [ri-zurv]

    OMG, I am so sorry!

    I bet that last line totally confused the hell out of a lot of you Oaklanders out there. My bad. You see, a reserve is this neat-o thing that some cities have where they take some of the money they get and instead of spending it, they put it away somewhere else.

    Yeah, I know it’s confusing. Go back and try reading it again slowly.

    No, you don’t spend it on something else. You put it somewhere else.

    No, not even if there’s something you really want to spend it on. You just put it away and let it sit there. Then, if something terrible happens, like, oh, I don’t know, if say revenues were to suddenly plummet or you unexpectedly had to bail out some beautification project in a ritzy neighborhood, then you would have money sitting there that you could use to deal with the problem. So you could take care of the issue without having to like, lay off half your park maintenance staff or whatever.

    Think of it sort of like a savings account, but for the City. It sounds crazy, I know. But trust me when I say it actually is fairly common practice in other places.

    Piedmont’s undergrounding problems

    Anyway, so Piedmont had $3 million in their General Fund reserve. That probably doesn’t sound like a lot, but you have to remember that Piedmont is super tiny, so it is actually quite a bit of money per person. Good for them.

    Anyway, so back in December, the Council approved this emergency resolution to spend a third of their reserve to bail out this underground project. But it doesn’t end there. It turns out that the project had even more problems (PDF) than they had realized in December, and to get it finished was going to cost another $1.15 million. Oops! People were seriously pissed.

    Underground Utilities in Oakland

    I am sure you are all wondering right about now why on earth I am talking about Piedmont’s undergrounding controversy. Mostly, because I find the story pretty entertaining (in a oh-god-government-is-so-depressing way, of course), and figured that since I was writing about undergrounding anyway, it would be fun to mention it.

    And why am I writing about undergrounding at all, you ask? Why, because the Public Works Committee was talking about it earlier this week, of course.

    You guys know what underground is, right? It’s when you take the power lines and other wires on poles in a neighborhood and you put them underground. We had underground utilities in the town where I went to high school. It was nice. Power lines are really unsightly. Also, they get knocked down in storms and your power goes out, and having your power out sucks. Plus, downed electrical lines are like, you know, extremely dangerous and a fire hazard.

    First Come, First Served

    So, if neighborhoods in Oakland want their utilities undergrounded, the way it happens is they ask they City for undergrounding and then they get on a list. Then the wait. Usually for a very long time. Then, once they get to the top of the list, the City goes and looks to see if that neighborhood meets one of the four eligibility requirements set by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for undergrounding. (If you don’t meet any of the criteria, you can still have undergrounding if you really want it, but you have to pay for it yourself. You can’t use money from this undergrounding fund that we get from PG&E). Anyway, the CPUC’s eligibility requirements are as follows:

    • heavy overhead electric facilities

    • heavy volume of auto and pedestrian traffic

    • civic area or public recreation area

    • arterial street or major collector

    There are 23 neighborhoods on the list right now. 23 probably doesn’t sound like a lot, but undergrounding is expensive. Most of it gets paid for out of this pot of undergrounding money we get from PG&E every year, but also the property owners in the neighborhood pay some too. Right now we get like $3.6 million a year from PG&E, and for the neighborhoods that get the undergrounding, the cost to the property owners is like $15,000 each. Based on the current funding, all the neighborhoods on the list will get their utilities undergrounded within the next 40 years.

    We’ve been doing it that way since 1968.

    Priorities for Undergrounding

    So, the City Council’s Public Works Committee got a report about this undergrounding list (PDF) back in September, and they were like “Maybe just giving this to whoever asked first isn’t the smartest way to do it. Maybe we should have, like, criteria or something to decide who gets undergrounding.” So they asked staff to come back with another report about how other cities decide what neighborhoods get undergrounding, and that happened on Tuesday.

    As it turns out, like, nobody else makes this decision based on who asked first. Crazy, I know.

    Instead, they look at factors like (PDF):

    • Whether the area is has other projects going on, like major street construction

    • Whether there is a safety issue related to the overhead wires

    • Whether the undergrounding would be near major public facilities (schools, parks, rec centers, commercial corridors, etc.)

    • Cost/benefit analysis of doing undergrounding in the area

    • Whether the undergrounding would happen on a major street

    Seems reasonable, right? After all, if it’s going to take 40 years before we get all these projects done, it seems logical to do them in some sort of, you know, rational order, based on where undergrounding is more needed.

    So, there weren’t very many speakers on this on Tuesday, but the ones who did show up said that whether overhead utilities is a safety issue should be the number one criteria. The meeting in September had more speakers, and they were also really adamant that safety issues should be the top criteria.

    Here’s former Oakland City Councilmember Dick Spees making the case for safety at that meeting back in September:

    It’s kind of hard to argue with. District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks said she was supportive of safety as a criteria, but made sure to note that overhead utilities are not a safety issue exclusively in the hills. She is unhappy with the fact that most of the undergrounding gets done in ritzy neighborhoods.

    District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan said it wasn’t quite so simple as all that, noting that the next neighborhood on the current list is in her District, and that they really really want their undergrounding, and that it isn’t fair for them if we just go and change the rules after they have been waiting for like 30 years and if we do they will get really angry.

    I definitely feel bad for people who have been waiting a long time for something and don’t get it. But what’s more important? Being fair? Or a fire? Fair? Fire? Fair? Fire? Kinda seems like a no brainer to me.

    You can watch the whole discussion here:

    If you have some time, you should watch it. It’s interesting. I’ll try to upload the September discussion later.

    What do you think?

    The report on Tuesday was just an information item, so nothing happened then. But the Committee did schedule the undergrounding issue to come back on May 11th, this time as an action item. That means they might actually adopt new criteria, not just talk about maybe doing it. If you have feelings about what the criteria should be, you should contact them about it.

    The contact information for the Public Works Committee is as follows:

    What should Oakland do about pensions?

    Here’s one I know you guys are going to love.

    On Tuesday, the Oakland City Council’s Finance and Management Committee will receive an informational report on Oakland’s long term pension and other post-employment liabilities. The report will also list a number of options for reducing future obligations. Although no action will be taken on these options right now, if you feel strongly about pensions (and I know a lot of you do), it would be a good idea to go share your thoughts on this one, or at the very least e-mail or call the Committee members beforehand. The meeting starts at 11 (PDF), although the pension stuff is towards the end of the agenda.

    The rest of the post is mostly just a summary of the staff report (PDF), so you guys can get an overview, but again, if this is a subject that interests you, I strongly suggest you read the whole thing (PDF).

    What kind of post-employment benefits do we offer?

    Well, there are a couple. First, there’s CalPERS. This is how we provide retirement benefits to current employees. CalPERS, or the California Public Employees Retirement System, provides retirement benefits for most (but not all – not everyone uses it) public employees in the State besides teachers. Mostly this blog will talk about CalPERS, but I just want to quickly mention the other ones.

    We also have PFRS, the Police and Fire Retirement System (PDF). Before we joined CalPERS, we managed our own system, and it serves sworn employees hired before July 1976. I believe there is only one current employee in PFRS, everyone else is retired already or transferred to CalPERS. I’m sure it will not surprise you that we haven’t managed these obligations well. In 1997, we decided that we didn’t like having to pay every year into PFRS and issued bonds to cover the costs through July of 2011.

    At that point, we have to start paying. How much, you ask? The most recent estimate of the unfunded PFRS liability is $435.3 million (PDF). That means that in July of 2011, which, in case you hadn’t noticed, is not very far off at all at this point, we’re going to have to cough up something in the neighborhood of $40 million a year (PDF). Where’s that money going to come from? Well, we’re probably (PDF) going to issue more bonds (PDF).

    OMERS, the Oakland Municipal Employees’ Retirement System (PDF), is like PFRS in that it’s from before we joined CalPERS. It covers non-sworn employees we hired before 1970. Employees hired before that date and who kept working for the City had the option of transferring to CalPERS and most of them did. As of July 2009, there were only 50 people in the plan.

    OMERS is unlike PFRS in that it’s almost completely funded. The most recent estimate of the OMERS unfunded liability is $518,000 (PDF).

    Finally, there are retirement medical benefits. I am not going to get too much into this one right now just due to space concerns and cause it really should have its own post, but basically, Oakland pays for health insurance (up to a certain cost) for retirees. This is a huge unfunded liability, estimated currently to be in the neighborhood of $600 million.

    If we were going to put aside money ahead of time to cover the cost of these future benefits, we would have spent $85.7 million last year. Instead we paid $12.5 million to cover the cost for current retirees. You can see the problem here.

    The report lists a few options for reducing future liabilities – some sort of prefunding of benefits, instituting medical benefit cost sharing for current employees, and adopting a two tiered system where new employees would not be promised the same level of benefit.

    What kind of retirement benefits do people get?

    Sworn employees (police and fire) are eligible to retire at age 50, and to receive 3% of their highest annual salary for every year of service. A minimum of five years of service is required to receive this benefit. So, for example, if you retire at age 50 after 20 years of service, you will get 60% of your highest annual salary (PDF) as your pension.

    Non-sworn employees have a plan called 2.7 percent at 55. You can probably figure it out yourself, but just in case – that means that if you retire at age 55, you get 2.7% of your highest year’s salary for every year of service. Again, you need to work five years to be eligible. So if you retire at age 55 after 20 years of service, you will get 54% of your highest annual salary (PDF) as your pension.

    What does it all cost?

    As you can image, providing these benefits is expensive. How expensive, you ask? The City’s CalPERS contribution cost last year was $74.5 million.

    That’s based on a contribution rate of 27.877% for public safety employees and 19.588% for other employees. That percentage is set based on a combination of what your pension obligations are going to be and what your unfunded liability is.

    Okay, I’ve rewritten that last sentence about a dozen times, and still don’t think I’m doing a very good job explaining it. I’m just going to let the report (PDF) explain it to you:

    The contribution rates are comprised of the normal cost (i.e., the future annual premiums) and the amortization base cost which is determine by CalPERS to bring the system to 100% funded over 30 years. The amortization base cost is dependent on the unfunded liability of the City. The higher the unfunded liability the higher this rate will be to make the plan whole. For example, since the City has an unfunded liability of $254.7 million for the safety plan as of June 30, 2008, the City pays a contribution rate of 28.092% for fiscal year 2010-11. If the City pays that unfunded liability ($254.7M), then the contribution rate would only be 17.689% for fiscal year 2010-11. Beause the City has an unfunded liability of $254.7M, CalPERS charges 10.403% (amortization cost) in addition to the normal cost to bring the plan funding status to 100% over time.

    So, the way we’re going, we can expect those contribution rates to keep rising – up to 33.7% for safety employees in 2016 and 26.5% for non-safety employees in 2016. And of course, payroll costs will rise during that same period.

    How do we pay for it?

    Well, the City’s CalPERS contributions are just part of the salary costs. So they come from whatever source of money is also funding the payroll.

    Oakland workers also contribute to their pensions. The rate varies depending on what they do. This is called the “employee share.” The idea behind the employee share is not, as some people seem to think, that the employee necessarily pays it. The employee can, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I just wanted to make it clear that it isn’t done that way everywhere. All it means is that the money paid into the employee share belongs to that specific employee rather than the City’s whole pension fund in general. So if you quit the City, you can decide you don’t want whatever pension you may have been eligible for, and take the money that was paid as employee share out of your account and roll it into your IRA or whatever.

    CalPERS sets the employee share for civilian employees at 8% of pay, and for public safety employees at 9% of pay. In Oakland, civilian employees pay the full 8% employee share into their pension out of their paychecks. Police Officers contribute nothing, although they will start giving 2% in 2013. Firemen contribute the full 9% employee share, and then on top of that, also give another 4% of their paycheck to help cover the City’s portion of the costs.

    What can we do about it?

    The report includes a couple of options for reducing the cost of pension obligations.

    • Introduce a two-tiered retirement system: This would allow us to continue the current benefits for existing employees, but give a smaller benefit to new hires. That way, costs would decrease over time.

    • Change calculation of final compensation: Retirement benefits through CalPERS are based on the employee’s “final compensation.” Although this sounds like an obvious thing, it’s not. There is more than one way we can calculate final compensation. In Oakland, we calculate it as the total of your highest paid consecutive 12 months of work. You could make that number based on the average of the employee’s three highest years pay, and it would end up being a little lower in many cases.

    • Increase employer paid member contribution: Another option would be to just make employees pay more. The more workers give out of their paycheck, the less the City has to pay.

    • Pay all or part of unfunded liability: If we paid our whole unfunded liability of $537.3 million, then our annual percentage that we have to pay to CalPERS would be way lower. I don’t even know why this one was mentioned at all, since where would that money come from?

    Discussion on Tuesday

    Okay, so like I said before, this is an informational report. Nothing is going to happen at Tuesday’s meeting. But if you are concerned about the City’s refusal to deal with ever increasing post-employment liabilities, this is an excellent opportunity to voice those concerns.

    Like I said before, the meeting starts at 11 on Tuesday (PDF). You can also contact the members of the Committee beforehand. Their contact information is as follows:

    If you do elect to go speak, or send your comments in advance, here are a few words of advice. Try to be reasonable. Read the report, make sure you understand the issues and the options, and try to ask for something that might actually happen. For example, there is no point to calling and saying the City should no longer use a defined benefit plan. You might think that, and it might be a reasonable position, but there is just no way that it’s going to happen. So don’t bother. Don’t go and say that all employees should take a 50% pay cut. That’s not going to happen either. And if you demand things that are completely outside the realm of possibility, you will just be dismissed as crazy and your effort will have been a waste of time. So try to keep it reasonable.

    And if you can’t make it in person, you can always catch the action streaming online on KTOP.