By Ken Epstein
The Oakland City Council this week passed a two-year $2.4 billion budget based on a local economy that is rebounding from years of recession.
With input from councilmembers and the community, Mayor Libby Schaaf and Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney put together a budget that closes an estimated $18 million annual funding gap without making cuts to city services or staffing and pays for 40 new police officers.
The council also set aside $617,000 to pay for a new Department of Race and Equity.
In the final discussions leading up to the council vote on Tuesday night, the money was spread around so a lot of local needs ended up receiving a little of the city’s growing resources.
Mayor Schaaf praised the budget, saying it benefited from the collaborative input of many people.
“We closed that deficit. We kept our promises. We increased compensation for our workers and were able to make some strategic investments,” she said.
Six councilmembers voted in favor of the budget. Noel Gallo voted no, and Desley Brooks abstained.
Some people in the community were happy that the new spending plan is funding all or part of the programs that are important to them.
But the final budget left some of the hundreds of residents who spoke at council hearings over the past few months dissatisfied and angry that their neighborhoods and their needs are still being neglected.
“It is heartbreaking the number of things we cannot fund,” Council President McElhaney said.
Among the major issues were the inequitable division of services among the city’s neighborhoods, lack of resources for jobs for the long term unemployed, youth and the formerly incarcerated, the need for more staff to aggressively enforce the minimum wage ordinance and an affordable housing crisis that is impacted by tenant protections that are not enforced.
Speakers at the hearings called on the city to focus on the desperate conditions facing the most vulnerable residents: meals for some of the 200 Oakland seniors who go each day without food; shelter and support for homeless girls and sexually exploited minors; and funding for Central American children living in Oakland who need lawyers to help them win refugee status to avoid being forced to return to homelands they fled to escape violence and death.
Others called for brush removal to prevent wildfires like the firestorm that devastated the Oakland hills in 1991. Supporters of the Oakland Animal Shelter pushed the city to fund services to protect dogs and cats.
Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who supported the budget, was pleased with some of the programs that were funded .
“I’m glad we were able to support some very important things in this budget including enforcement of laws that protect people’s rights: tenant protections and wage protections,” she said, also praising the decision to fund her proposal to go after illegal guns and illegal gun dealing.
A major problem, Kaplan said, is that city’s tax income is not going up very much despite increasing rents and growing numbers of rental properties.
“If we don’t fix the revenue situation, we’ll be constantly in the situation where different vital needs are pitted against each other,” she said.
When councilmembers ask the city’s revenue department why revenue is not going up, she said, “They are told they can’t give us the data because the computers don’t work.”
“Why is it that the amount of money (staff) says we will be getting in rental property tax is lower than what we got in 2011?” She asked.
Councilmember Gallo said he opposed the budget, in part because of its failure to provide more resources to help sexually exploited girls and young women.
The council set aside $500,000 to build a shelter where the girls can stay,” he said, “But we need the services that go with it. “
“What the council offered was a good step, but it was a small step,” Gallo said. “We have to get serious about dealing with human trafficking in Oakland. “
“Everybody cries about it, feels sorry about, but it’s still there – every day in the city.”
Not waiting for the council to move ahead on this issue, Gallo is holding meetings with Catholic churches in the area to ask them to open their doors so girls will have a place to stay.
Courtesy of the Oakland Post, July 5, 2015 (postnewsgroup.com)