Two activist groups held dueling news conferences outside of Oakland City Hall on Wednesday to raise concerns over the city’s proposed budget, as officials work to close a $292 million deficit over the next two years. 

An assortment of progressive groups calling itself the Oakland People’s Budget Coalition urged the city to keep critical funding for the arts, housing and police oversight on Wednesday as the city tries to balance its spending plan.

When that group was done with its event, a smaller group connected to an effort to recall Mayor Sheng Thao, the Coalition for Community Engagement, gave its own presentation, in which speakers lambasted the administration’s moves to close the budget gap as “fiscally irresponsible” — chief among them, the move to sell the Coliseum to private investors. 

The events crystallized what is shaping up to be into a momentous budget season in Oakland, as the city tries to pull out of a post-pandemic malaise that is animating its political sphere and pushing officials to make significant decisions, such as the Coliseum sale, that could permanently reshape its future. 

The recall effort against Thao, similar to the one organized against Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price, looms in the background. Backers of that effort say Thao’s administration deserves blame for the budget crisis. 

City Hall officials, who did not return a request for comment on Wednesday, have said that the budget crisis, as well as other challenges such as a rise in crime in 2023, have roots in larger societal and economic changes wrought by the pandemic. The budget issues stem in large part from a steep decline in real estate transfer taxes after the number of properties changing hands in the city — and the amount they were selling for — fell sharply following the COVID crisis. 

City Hall officials said that Thao’s proposal for the budget will let them close the huge budget deficit without personnel cuts across city departments, including in public safety capacities — a move they’ve hailed as a successful solution.

Under the plan, Oakland’s fiscal shortfall will be addressed mainly by a citywide hiring freeze and the city’s sale of its half of the Oakland Coliseum site to a group of private developers for at least $105 million. The Coliseum sale still has to be approved and finalized, and would likely necessitate an entirely different budgetary plan from the city if it were to fall through. 

Representatives from the People’s Budget group said they had a handful of demands for the City Council, which is currently holding hearings on the spending plan. 

They said they wanted the city to continue transitioning more roles in the Police Department’s internal affairs division to civilians and terminate a contract with ShotSpotter, a gunfire detection system used by the police. They also want the city to continue funding the Measure W election funding initiative, to establish a relocation fund for tenants in the city who are evicted, and to commit to finding more revenue-generating areas. 

“We recognize the historic deficit we are facing is a result of structural problems in how the city of Oakland collects and allocates revenue,” said Isaiah Toney, a leader of the group. “We urge our city leaders to look at long-term solutions that ensure corporations are paying their fair share to support the critical services that we all depend on.”

The Thao recall backers said they are sharply critical of the city’s decision to sell the Coliseum and use the funds to help solve its budgetary woes.

They cited data another group has compiled that says the city’s hiring freeze will cost the police and fire departments and other public safety divisions some 172 positions if the cuts are made permanent. They also said that the city was using money, on an emergency basis, that had been allocated through voter-approved measures for other expenditures.

“Those are restricted voter-approved funds,” said Chris Moore, a Piedmont resident who is part of the Pamela Price and Sheng Thao recall efforts. “And they’re going to shift it over to try to solve this budget disaster that they’ve created. And this is the problem and this is what we’re against.”