Oakland News by Hyphenated Republic on patreon.com | MAY 16, 2021

Mayor Libby Schaaf unveiled her proposed FY 21-23 budget last Monday in an often-contentious Special Budget meeting that sometimes resembled a training webinar more than a  budget presentation. The budget was one week late according to City ordinance requirements, and was in a completely web-based format, eschewing traditional—and apparently legally required—tradition.

Schaaf introduced the last budget proposal of her career as Oakland Mayor in a 14 minute speech that, while short on specifics about content, hit many notes of her governance style over the past 7 years. Schaaf advised residents to look toward state and county support for issues like homelessness and lack of mental health care, not the city. She boasted about her administration’s fiscal responsibility and good fiscal standing.

But several of her claims seemed to belie the deeper realities. Though she portrayed herself as a defender of the City workforce and boasted that her administration solved its fiscal problems without  layoffs of  “permanent” staff, the Schaaf administration threatened “concessions” from the City’s unions to balance the covid-era budget as early as last Spring. Schaaf’s claim about avoiding layoffs belied the dismissal of hundreds of the City’s temporary part time workforce in two cullings last year. TPTs and other temp employees were only re-hired thanks to budget allocations made by City Council with American Rescue Plan Act funds in April. 

And Schaaf repeatedly summoned the specter of impending insolvency, while never naming the major cause of the narrowly avoided fiscal disaster over the past two years, according to her own Finance Department—police over-spending during failing Covid-era revenue.

The bulk of the remainder of the Schaaf Administration’s budget presentation was a literal training session given by Finance staffer Bradley Johnson on the web-based dynamic budget tool. While the budget presentation went on for about 20 minutes, Johnson’s tutorial lasted nearly 35 minutes.

Re-funding OPD

Schaaf’s budget shrugs off most of the demands of the Defund/Refund movement and the legislative aim of the Reimagining Public Safety Taskforce to reduce the OPD’s budget by 50%. Schaaf’s proposed FY2021-22 police budget is a 10% increase in General Purpose Fund expenditures over her 19-20 OPD budget proposal*. The increase nearly matches the unprecedented levels of police over-spending in 19-20 that drove the City toward a “fiscal cliff” that only ARPA funds managed to avert last month. And Schaaf wants to exceed that figure in the second budget year.

Most of the increase for the OPD budget in both years is in overtime—that increase also nearly matches the total cost of overtime  in 21-22 at $32 million [OPD’s overtime expenditure in 19-20 was $35 million]. The Schaaf budget eliminates some historically vacant positions, consolidates others, and claims to focus more resources on 911 response and serious crime investigation. 

The budget would also add 2 police academies in the first fiscal year and 4 in the second. But despite Schaaf’s desire to raise the number of police, OPD’s notorious attrition rate has the number dwindling back to its current level in the second budget year. Though she claims the Finance Department used a much more efficient “zero budgeting” process to efficiently fund the OPD, the result matched the Schaaf administration’s long-standing goal of “right-sizing” the budget—the administration’s euphemism for budgetary increase in the police department.

The OPD receives money from several other funds many of which are not discretionary and vary with tax and fee inputs from residents, like Measure Z and the False Alarm fund which show up as part of the All Funds budget. These funds are not in Schaaf’s control and trend lower in this budget proposal than last year’s actuals.  

Department Expenditure Budget Tells Only Part of the OPD Spending Story

Despite the historic budget increase, OPD is set to receive even more funds in this budgetary period from Measure KK. The Schaaf Administration’s Department of Transportation and Department of Public Works, which oversee the Capital Improvements Budget, initially proposed nearly 19 million dollars in OPD facilities upgrades, including a 7.5 million build out for a new “violence prevention office” in the adjacent courthouse building. 

At the meeting, DOT’s Ariel Espiritu Santo noted that the “violence prevention office” had been deleted from the CIP budget, though the expenditure still appears on the City’s budget website. City Spokesperson Karen Boyd told this publication that the violence prevention office had been added to the proposal in error due to “a staff miscommunication on projects submitted”—an error that was only found Monday after the budget had been released. The CIP budget book listing the violence prevention office has been publicly available for several weeks, however. 

Boyd sent this publication a revised version of the CIP budget book published on May 13 with the office deleted, but the rest of the KK funding for OPD intact. The remainder amount—significant rehab of the Police Administration Building, Eastmont Substation Rehabs, and feasibility studies—adds an additional $11.2 million over other budget allocations that would benefit only OPD. One million of the funds over the two year cycle would simply be for development feasibility studies, including 500k for a study of a new headquarters building. 

OPD may also receive other funds not specified in the budget. It’s unclear, for example, how ARPA funds will be used in the coming fiscal years, but given OPD’s lion’s share of the GPF, it’s possible that the funds could go to meet overages or shortfalls.  

“Listening to Most Impacted” Statements Misleading

In her prepared comments, Schaaf defended her increase of the police budget by claiming that she was listening to those residents most impacted by violence, not those with the “loudest voices.” Schaaf, for example, said her resistance to incorporate functional Defund requests in the budget was a “lifting up of guidelines proposed by the Black members of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force.” 

The guideline Schaaf referenced was proposed by 5 Black members of the task force, and called for adopting new non-police responses only when they were guaranteed to work as well or better than police services being replaced. Schaaf noted that this meant any process to defund police and refund social services would proceed slowly.

But that guideline doesn’t appear in the RPSTF report because it was never adopted and failed during the vote on over a dozen guidelines for the group’s work. Though Schaaf strongly implied that all of the RPSTF’s Black members supported the guideline, the task force had 9 Black members, not 5. Four of those Black participants did not sign on to the letter that proposed that and other guidelines.

Though Schaaf claimed she centered voices from the most impacted West and East Oakland flatlands communities within the RPSTF, she didn’t use her task force appointment power to name someone from one of those communities. Schaaf appointed white former Council Member and D2 hills resident Pat Kernighan to the task force instead.

Schaaf Misrepresented Budget Poll Findings

Schaaf also misrepresented findings in the City’s commissioned budget poll carried out last year. While Schaaf declared that 78% of the public wanted the same or increased levels of policing, the question that produced that data was framed as a preference “independent of the City’s budget situation.” 

When asked direct questions about specific budget priorities, however, police services were often lower on the list of important priorities. Not surprisingly, solving homelessness, which has been a number one priority in the polls for several years, again was on the top of the list of specific budget priorities.

In another series of questions, respondents seemed much more open to cutting police services than most other City services.  On the question of actually making tough cuts in the precarious budget situation Schaaf describes, more people would cut police before fire and emergency services, job training, affordable housing and homelessness services. 

Some Changes Seem to Weaken Crucial City Services

While a more rigorous analysis of Schaaf’s proposed budget has been setback by the combination of new format and late release, and a deeper dive by Council-contracted Harvey Rose firm is forthcoming, some other features of the budget stand out readily.

Human Services, the city agency most associated with homeless services, rehousing, and transitional housing services, receives most of its ongoing operations budget through State, County and Federal grants. That means the department’s funding can vary greatly year to year. In fact, much of the funds Schaaf boasted in her address as new allocations for homeless interventions are from state, federal and local grants already budgeted for and appropriated in the last fiscal year and are not from the GPF. In a surprising move, the department’s share of the GPF—the funds that pay for staffing and processes necessary for the provision of those services—is $2 million lower in 21-22 than in 19-20 actuals with little explanation. 

Despite the fact that the Oakland Fire Department has come in under budget for several years running, OFD received a similar “zero budgeting” treatment akin to the police department, wiping out an approximate 29 vacant positions in favor of a larger overtime budget. International Association of Firefighters Local 55 President Zac Unger told this publication that firefighters are worried about a de facto reduction of the OFD’s capacity during a time when the City needs even more services—with more encampment fires than ever, a declaration of a local red flag fire warning two months ahead of the traditional wildfire season and a City still under the grip of Covid. 

“If there is public demand to shrink the fire department,” Unger notes, “we certainly haven’t seen any evidence of it.”  

Meanwhile, the Mayor’s Office budget share of GPF is projected to steadily grow in the two year budget, a 15% increase from 2019-20 projections—there is no explanation for the 500k increase, despite losing a full time employee over 19-20. In an inexplicable, but ironic note, the only expenditure page in the budget book that lacks a link to the transparency portal is the Mayor’s Office budget.

Late Budget in a New Format with Emerging Challenges

Very few questions about the budget allocations were asked or answered at the meeting, however, as Schaaf’s violation of the City’s Consolidated Fiscal Policy and the steep learning curve to utilize her budget tool took center stage. Several CMs registered protest at Schaaf’s violation of the law and the replacement of the standard budget format with little advanced notice. Even after the 33 minute training session, CM’s still had many questions about using the tool.

Concerns about the legality of Schaaf’s move also remain. Vice President Rebecca Kaplan failed to get an on the record pronouncement from the City Attorney’s office on legal issues surrounding the unusual budget release during the meeting. Kaplan enumerated several apparent violations of the Consolidated Fiscal Policy by Schaaf, in addition to the text requiring the budget to be public by May 1. 

The consolidated fiscal policy requires a paper publication, Kaplan noted and that paper publication must be placed in all City libraries. In response, the City Attorney representative said the office was preparing an opinion on the issues that would soon be published, but declined to give an on-record answer. 

A PDF version of the Budget Book website was posted to the City’s website several days later on May 12, but statements from staff during the meeting indicate the PDF was at the Council’s request and that there had been no plan to create one. The PDF appears to be just that—a document version of the website. Issues stemming from the hasty translation of the website to a printable copy are immediately obvious—there are no page numbers in the table of contents, only links. And some dynamic table graphics from the website are only partially visible in the PDF. According to Boyd, the printed version has not yet been provided to libraries at the time of this publication.

A screen capture of the PDF budget book. The table can’t be altered.

The site itself has some glitches as noted and screenshot by this publication—tables do not fully resolve depending on sizing of the page within the browser and/or use of the drop down tables and it can be a challenge to find the right page sizing to view all the page data clearly at once for several tables. The site as a whole isn’t searchable. 

The dynamic “live” nature of the site, before the release of a PDF, also bring up issues of data security—the pages can’t be captured on third party sites like Wayback Machine or software except by screenshot. And there appears to be no way to compare current page versions with past versions should changes be made, although the pages do seem to post update time/dates which would reveal the fact that they had been altered.  

Boyd says any updates or changes that need to be made to the budget—like the change in CIP budget for OPD—will be made as they have in previous years, with errata documents presented to the City Council. Boyd adds that the errata will also be published on the City’s website and in a dedicated page in the budget book website.

Regardless of the rush-induced hiccups, the site appears to live up to many of the promises of the Schaaf administration, providing layered data that gives a fuller picture of spending with additional breakdowns available in it’s “transparency portal”. Liz Suk, Executive Director of Oakland Rising, who must use the budget book website for work and activism thinks the City staff who designed and worked on the book created a superior and useful tool. But she says she is still trying to get on top of the new format when she should have been diving deep into the numbers by now—the late release coupled with complicated structure is actually impeding transparency in short term.

“With the Mayor releasing her budget a week late and making broad claims about this being a “just recovery” budget it feels like she’s using the Budget Bureau’s inability to roll out the tool properly to cover for her pro-police budget,” she said.

*Comparisons between budget years or the purposes of this article are often done between FY 2019-20 actuals and FY 2021-22 projections, as complete data will not be available for 20-21 until Fall. Less attention is paid to the second year 21-23 budget than the first in this article, because of the tendency for the second year budget to be substantially amended in the mid-cycle.