by Allyssa Victory
Facing the largest budget deficit in Oakland’s history, Mayor Thao’s budget proposes to cut funding to all City departments except for the police department, which has increased. Mayor Thao’s budget violates her own campaign promises to the public including that she would “double” the department of violence prevention’s budget.
Instead, her proposed budget cuts the department of violence prevention funding by at least $6 million. The proposed budget also includes no funding for implementation of Democracy Dollars, passed with almost 80% of the vote to expand public financing for City elections. Failure to fund the program will regress our City to zero publicly financed elections; the exact opposite goal of the ballot measure.
OPD has the highest percentage of Oakland’s general funds which is the main fund where elected officials can use discretion in budgeting (as opposed to special funds which are restricted to specific uses). The City Council already approved budget increases to the police department through 2021 legislation to increase the number of police academies and 2023 approvals of increases to salary and benefits in the police union contract. Note: Mayor Thao served on the City Council for the past four years and was a part of those legislative approvals.
The City alleges the largest budget deficit in history. This deficit comes on the heels of the City accepting millions in federal and state assistance during pandemic assistance funds whose purposes included fighting the public health and economic impacts of the Covid pandemic; maintaining vital public services even amid declines in revenue resulting from the pandemic; and building a strong, resilient and equitable recovery.
Furthermore, Oakland has had access to federal and state housing assistance to address our local emergency due to homelessness declared since 2018. This includes at least $80 million in homeless funds reviewed by the City auditor in 2022 who found the funds were distributed by the City to third parties without tracking and housing a single person.
Even our state announced a budget surplus in 2022. Past budgetary failures and fiscal irresponsibility have contributed to the deficit we are dealing with now. The City announced large investments in affordable housing through Measure U however this is not allocated from the City’s general funds.
Mayor Thao’s proposal does not address these fiscal transparency issues nor do they fully implement the police spending recommendations of the City Auditor’s Office; the Mayor’s Budget Advisory Committee; or the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force. The City Auditor advised on simple measures to curtail unbudgeted police overtime spending which has not been implemented. The Reimagining Public Safety Task Force was composed of residents throughout the City who presented over 80 recommendations to transition the City to a balanced and holistic public safety approach.
In March, Mayor Thao announced that she had shifted abandoned vehicle towing, a city-wide pothole repair “blitz”, and other street safety measures from the police department to the department of transportation. However, no budget shifts have followed thus the transportation department is expected to hold increased duties without increased staffing or resources (on the inverse: police department gets budget increase while having less duties). Residents have petitioned to increase the budget of the department of transportation by at least $20 million to fund the necessary staff to address racial inequity in street safety and the massive backlog of work.
Most City departments are already working at low capacity with understaffing and limited resources. During the City Councilmember budget town halls, public commenters included City workers who expressed that they are already overworked and facing large backlogs and cannot imagine having to work with less resources. The Mayor’s proposed budget includes an administrative reorganization that attempts to consolidate and expand administrative oversight with each department hub reporting to an assistant city administrator.
How and what timeline these large organizational shifts will occur is unclear. Some staff expressed the feeling that funding new administrator roles would instead be better spent on increasing department staffing and that more administration may delay decision-making and services. Six months into Thao’s administration, we are already on our third City Administrator.
Jestin Johnson began in June and was recruited from Atlanta, GA. The City has faced departure of the heads of police, fire, and violence prevention departments as well as the homeless administrator position. Once budget season is completed, Mayor Thao must fill the many key leadership positions and shift the City to a new organizational structure.
City Councilmembers hosted public budget town halls to review the Mayor’s budget and hear from residents. Council will deliberate the proposed budget and any amendments through June and legally must approve a final budget by June 30. Community organizations are continuing to provide public education on how to understand the budget and lobbying the City Council to legislate a balanced budget that reflects the needs of Oakland’s workers and residents.
Allyssa Victory is a civil rights attorney, former Oakland mayoral candidate and community leader. Contact her on Twitter at @Victory4Oakland.