Oakland Parcel Tax Would Fund Increased Police Staffing

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday July 17, 2008 - 09:43:00 AM

Oakland City Council decided Tuesday night to put on the November ballot a police parcel tax compromise measure co-written by Mayor Ron Dellums and Councilmember Jane Brunner, but the final 6-2 council vote did not reflect how close the proposal was to stalling and dying on the council chambers floor. 

Only a dramatic turnaround to support the measure by Councilmember Larry Reid—who admitted that only an hour before he had been prepared to vote against—ensured that Oakland voters will get the chance this fall to weigh in on a measure that would, among other things, add 105 uniformed police officers and 75 police service technicians to the Oakland Police Department’s ranks over a three-year period, bringing the total authorized uniformed police strength up to 908. 

To support the new hires, the Dellums-Brunner proposal would increase parcel taxes on single-family residential units by $275 in its third year, with a $188 extra per unit charge on multiple residential dwellings. Low-income households would be exempt from the tax increase. 

The Dellums-Brunner ballot measure mandates that the taxes and police staffing increases can only be triggered if the city reaches and maintains the current authorized level of 803 uniformed officers. The failure of such a staffing guarantee has been one of the chief criticisms of Measure Y, the 2002 measure in which Oakland voters taxed themselves to increase Oakland police strength to 803. 

If passed by voters in November, taxes would not begin being collected until August of 2009, with the additional authorized police officers scheduled to hit Oakland’s streets sometime in 2010. 

Only Council President Ignacio De La Fuente and Councilmember Desley Brooks voted against the Dellums-Brunner police parcel tax measure Tuesday night. 

Reid told councilmembers Tuesday that he agreed with some of the opponents of the Dellums-Brunner proposal that Measure Y “has not been fully implemented.”  

“I agree we face issues of transparency,” Reid said. “But transparency doesn’t trump democracy. As an elected official, I cannot in good conscience silence the voices of the citizens of this city. If the voters want more police, then they’ll approve the measure. If they don’t want more police, then they won’t approve.” 

Councilmember Henry Chang had opposed the measure when it came up to the council’s powerful Rules Committee last week, and said at the time he voted for it  

in committee was only so that the issue could be discussed before the full council. It was widely assumed that Chang would either vote against the measure at Tuesday’s council meeting-leading to a 4-4 tie if Reid had also voted no—or else abstain, thus preventing Dellums from casting a tie-breaking vote in favor of the ballot measure. But after Reid voted in support, Chang did so as well. 

“I changed my vote [in the Rules Committee] so the council could discuss this measure,” Chang said. “For the same reason, I’m voting now to put this on the ballot, so the public can have a healthy discussion on the issue.” 

The dramatic vote followed a rare appearance at the council meeting by Dellums, who said that “it’s important that we have an honest conversation in Oakland” about how many police are needed, and how they are to be paid for. “Let the citizens make that decision.” 

At last week’s Rules Committee meeting, Council President De La Fuente had said that he was “not willing to go to the taxpayers and ask them for $200 or $300 a year more” in taxes, and that if the City Council deems it necessary that more police should be hired in Oakland, “we need to bite the bullet and find a way to pay for it” out of the existing budget. At Tuesday night’s meeting, De La Fuente said that he would campaign against the ballot measure in November. It would appear he is going to have some company. 

At Tuesday’s meeting, Steve Edrington, Executive Director of Oakland’s Rental Housing Association, called the Dellums-Brunner measure “an outrageous proposal” and a “fraud on the voters. There’s no attempt to look at the budget and see where the money for added police can come from.” Edrington said that if the Dellums-Brunner ballot measure was such a good proposal, “let the mayor go out and get the signatures himself” to put it on the ballot, rather than asking for council to sponsor the measure. 

And Oakland resident Marleen Sacks, who is suing the City of Oakland over its failure to fully staff the Oakland Police Department under the Measure Y authorization, said that while “I believe Oakland needs more police officers, Measure Y has been an unmitigated failure,” and that there was “not sufficient accountability” in the new Dellums-Brunner ballot measure. 

And Greg McConnell, executive Director of the Safe Streets Committee, the sponsors of the aborted Safe Streets Initiative, warned that the original initiative could be put on the ballot at a later date if the Dellums-Brunner measure failed. 

Oakland’s police-increase ballot measure saga began earlier this year when a group of private citizens—later joined by influential political consultant Larry Tramutola—began circulating petitions for a November Oakland ballot measure called the “Safe Streets and Neighborhoods Act Of 2008” that would raise uniformed police strength to 1,075 officers from the current-authorized 803. The Safe Streets measure was widely criticized for its failure to identify a funding source for the added uniformed police, with its advocates proposing that the money be taken out of the existing Oakland City budget. 

Late this spring, Mayor Dellums cut a deal with the Safe Streets measure advocates in which, in return for their dropping their 272 police-increase initiative, the mayor would propose a parcel tax measure calling for a smaller police increase. 

Explaining his reason for opposition to the Safe Streets Initiative Tuesday night, Dellums said that the citizen proposal had no provision for raising taxes, so that the estimated $68 million to $75 million needed to fund the police increase “would decimate several areas of the budget. If their measure had passed, we all ought to go home. That measure was irresponsible.”