Parks, taxes, and promises

In addition to the continued debate on the repeal of Measure OO, the Oakland City Council tonight will also consider placing a $46 parcel tax (PDF) on the ballot to fund park maintenance and landscaping.

It’s unclear to me why the Council thinks yet another parcel tax is going to pass. People weren’t willing to pay more money for more police in November, and this tax wouldn’t give us more of anything. It would just take more of our money to restore the already unacceptable service levels we had in October, which, honestly, just doesn’t seem like a particularly enticing offer to me.

Anyway, the discussion on the item was depressing, partly because it was a really sobering reminder of how abysmal our current service levels are, and partly because it just made me realize how little faith I have in the City.

Pat Kernighan had two issues with the tax. First, she wanted property owners to be able to pass the tax onto renters, which was uncontroversial. Second, she wanted to include language with the tax that would ensure a baseline level of staffing for park and landscape maintenance functions. Currently, some of the maintenance positions are funded by the LLAD, while others are funded from other sources – the General Fund, the Comprehensive Clean-Up Fund, and ACTIA. Kernighan worried that the tax would be sold to voters as restoring all the positions that were cut back in October, but that once it passed, the Council would simply use the tax proceeds to pay for those existing positions, which would free up money in the General Fund for other things:.

If the voters vote to tax themselves, I do not want us to use that money then to backfill these other funds and shift those funds to other needed – I mean, they’re all needed activities. But I don’t want to play a shell game with the voters where they think they’re getting back 52 employees and they really only get back 25 of them. And so, we need to have some kind of guarantee if we’re gonna be successful with this measure about how many employees are going to be doing this kind of service delivery.

Which, obviously that’s exactly what they would do, and kudos to Kernighan for being realistic about it, which was a lot more than Jean Quan could manage:

Pat Kernighan: if we can’t guarantee to maintain this horribly low number of 134, when it was 186 six months ago, why would they vote for it, they have no reason to vote for it, because then their $48 goes to whatever in the city, whatever the General Fund funds.

Jean Quan: It goes to the parks and the trees. It goes to very specific things.

Pat Kernighan: It goes to the Mayor’s office, it goes to the City Council office, it goes everywhere.

Jean Quan: That’s – wait, wait, wait. You can’t say that about this. This is clearly a parcel tax for parks.

Pat Kernighan: Jean, you don’t – no, no, no! Okay, maybe we’ll have this discussion later. The point is – we are saying to people, you give us extra money, and that money is gonna guarantee park maintenance activities. But if what we are doing at the same time is taking out the previous funding that was already there, it’s just a backfill, it’s just a plug…I’m just saying that if we are not fair with the voters about delivering exactly what we say we’re gonna deliver if they’re willing to pay extra money, they will not ever vote for anything again.

Jean Quan was very much not into including that baseline, saying that it was out of their control whether or not ACTIA funding decreased. Kernighan insisted that if ACTIA funding decreased, then the General Fund would then have to cough up the cash to make up for whatever loss of funding to maintain that staffing level.

I was really torn about this. I appreciated Kernighan’s commitment to finding a way to ensure that voters are getting what they’re promised if the tax passes. On the other hand, I kept feeling like she was being delusional about the whole thing, because no matter what assurances are included in the ballot measure, of course the City is going to find some way around them, and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why she doesn’t see that.

Now, being on the Council, Kernighan is in a position where she can actually try to ensure that the promise is kept, so I suppose she has more reason to believe minimum staffing levels will be maintained than I do. But from where I sit – and I don’t think I quite realized how strongly I felt about this until watching this discussion – I have absolutely zero confidence left that the City will deliver on any promise ever. In fact, I’m completely convinced that they won’t, and there is no ballot language or creation of oversight committees or audit requirements that’s going to sway me from that position at this point. Kernighan seems to think voters are willing to give the City at least one more chance, and is committed to making sure they don’t blow it. For my part, that ship sailed a while ago. I guess we’ll see in July where the rest of Oakland voters stand.

6 thoughts on “Parks, taxes, and promises

  1. Colin

    One question about the chart: other than parcel taxes, what else is included in special assessments? Does that include business licensing fees or anything like that? Just curious.

    Seems like it’s a long-standing California tradition to backfill like this. The state gov has been doing it for decades, and I remember a big stink about this in SF when there was a big campaign to boost school funding via parcel taxes, only to have roughly the same amount removed in the next budget.

  2. V Smoothe Post author

    I removed the chart Colin is referring to almost immediately after I published the post, because upon rereading, I felt like it distracted from my main point, which is about trust. Comparative tax rates are really an issue for another day. But so people aren’t completely confused about the comment, here it is:

    Colin, special assessments include parcel taxes and other assessments like the LLAD. No business licensing fees or anything like that – it’s just property taxes.

  3. len raphael

    Pat K reminds me of the SEC commissioner who at a recorded SEC hearing 4 years ago questioned the wisdom of lowering the capital requirements for large investment banks. like Pat he asked all the right questions. Then he summed it up and said if I vote to lower reserves and something bad happens to the financial system, it could get very very bad. The SEC staff assured him they would never let that happen.

    Like Pat tends to do, he concluded with “Ok, I’ll vote yes”


    (annually recurring special assessments don’t include business taxes. i assmume that specific building or development fees (melo roos?) that are recurring would be on a specific property tax for thatspecific owner and are not included in the above special assess column.

    the average rate only makes sense to compare effective tax rates on the same property tax valuation ie. speciall assestments are fixed (ad valorem?) per parcel that are added to the base rate. )


  4. cp

    I’m impressed that someone on the city council can actually reason about the future side-effects of today’s actions. Too bad the rest of the city council either doesn’t understand Pat or will ignore her.

  5. TheBoss

    In truth, this is the way government funding works everywhere, at every level.

    No matter what priority a tax purports to serve, government officials will indeed play this shell game, moving money around to fund their priorities.

    If you guarantee $1 to a program through a tax, the program will probably get that money (though not always, depending on how many emergencies have been declared that year). But that $1 will decidedly not be in addition to already-allocated money.

    The only solution is to hold down taxes. Oakland’s 1.3% property tax rate, along with the property transfer tax and the horrible schools, serves only to ghettoize the city.

  6. MarleenLee

    “I’m just saying that if we are not fair with the voters about delivering exactly what we say we’re gonna deliver if they’re willing to pay extra money, they will not ever vote for anything again…” I agree V, that ship has sailed. If the City Council were truly committed to spending special tax money the way they promised, they need to start with Measure Y. They STILL have not made good on Measure Y promises as far as I know (still no crime reduction teams staffed, still not having PSOs serve only their beats etc.) Moreover, when the tentative ruling came down against the City in February (still no final decision yet), the City Attorney immediately announced it would recommend an appeal. The violations of Measure Y were obvious, and an appeal would only serve to delay giving the taxpayers what they voted for, and never got. I have this to say to the City Council: after the violations of Measure Y, you have ZERO credibility on the special tax front, and the mere thought of putting another measure on the ballot is an insult to voters.

    I do believe that there is a way to craft ballot measures to prevent the shell game scam. But as was established with Measure Y, it takes a lawsuit to expose it, and then the City will just spend the taxpayers’ money funding the defense of the lawsuit. Until the City regains my trust on Measure Y (which is unlikely to happen anytime soon), I will urge everybody to vote no on any new taxes.