Two measures on the ballot this November give voters the chance to decide the future of public safety funding in Oakland. If either Measure BB or Measure X passes, the city could again collect funds for a slew of public safety programs that currently have no revenue to support them.
Measures X and BB both seek a similar outcome: to let Oakland collect funds as outlined in the city’s Violence Prevention and Public Safety Act of 2004 (or Measure Y, as that act was called when voters approved it). Their two approaches differ greatly.
Measure BB changes the requirements on the Oakland Police Department that currently prevent about $19 million in Measure Y funds from being collected. Although Measure Y levies a parcel tax, or a flat rate tax assessed on every property in Oakland, it also requires that police staffing be kept at 739 or higher before the taxes can be collected.
This summer, the city laid off 80 police officers due to a budget deficit, bringing the total number of sworn officers to 696. The decision—heatedly debated—meant that Measure Y funds could no longer be collected.
So if voters approve Measure BB (known as “the Measure Y fix”), this requirement will be stricken from the law. The parcel tax will be levied regardless of police staffing levels, allowing Measure Y funds to be collected.
Money from Measure Y initially paid for 57 problem-solving officers (often called PSOs) to work on recurring issues like burglary, vandalism, and prostitution. Of the officers laid off this summer, 60 were PSOs. What’s more, Measure Y pays for officers who run a Crime Reduction Team, as well as truancy abatement officers and members of a special victim’s unit. So, while measure BB would remove the requirement to keep 739 police officers in the force, money would be freed up to pay for more than 60 specialized officers.
Measure X takes a different approach, enacting a new parcel tax that can be used in part to recruit and train more police officers. If the increased budget allows the police force to grow, the arrival of the new officers would allow Measure Y funds to be collected again, bringing in even more funding. The parcel tax is set at a flat $360 for a single-family residence, and would be collected until 2015, when Measure Y is set to expire.
If voters approve Measure X, a side contract agreed to by the Oakland Police Officer’s Association will come into effect, requiring police officers to contribute 9% of funds toward their pensions. Police currently do not put any money toward their pensions.
With crime rates a chief concern among Oaklanders, the decision could seem simple to outsiders. But thousands of Oaklanders have already lost homes in foreclosures and short sales this year, and the local unemployment rate is 17.3%, according to the California Employment Development Department The prospect of increasing or even maintaining property taxes puts some voters in a bind.
Davis Riemer, an Oakland resident of 41 years, described himself as a voter who “fell in love with every bond measure he ever met” at a recent informational event put on by the Oakland chapter of the League of Women Voters. But Riemer said he had moral misgivings about adding more parcel taxes to the bills of financially strapped Oaklanders. In the end, Riemer said, he is supporting Measure X even though he isn’t fond of the Oakland Police Officer’s Association. “I’m furious at the way the police union has negotiated over the past 5 to 10 years,” said Riemer.
The League itself supports measures X and BB simply because public safety funding will increase if one or both of them passes. “We have a really basic position that says that local governments and school districts should have full funding,” League member Helen Hutchinson said. “The only way they have to do that is the parcel tax. It’s not great, but it’s the only way they have to get money.”
In California, city governments face tight restrictions on how they can collect taxes. Before Proposition 13 was enacted in 1978, local governments had broader control over property taxes, and could increase revenues more freely. After the new law took effect, parcel taxes emerged as a key strategy for funding new services. Hence the “alphabet soup” voters see on their ballots today. Proposition 13 also requires that measures like X and BB need a two-thirds majority to become law.
David Wolfe of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association disagrees with the League position. “We believe that first and foremost, the role of government should be to protect its citizens from harm,” Wolfe said. “That said, our legislative leaders locally should be able to prioritize resources to ensure that” those services are delivered.
Measure Y, which was written by mayoral candidate Jean Quan, does the opposite of what anti-tax groups such as Wolfe’s would like: it collects a flat rate of money to pay specifically for services not covered by a local government’s general fund. The tax does more than pay for specialized police officers: it also provides money for violence prevention programs and fire safety crews.
A recent report produced by the city administrator said that in the fiscal year of 2009-2010, the city spent over $4.5 million of Measure Y funds on violence prevention programs for young adults and adolescents, as well as for domestic violence and crisis response programs. The report states that Measure Y-funded programs contributed to a near-term decrease in crime and risk-taking behaviors, as well as an increase in employment, with the adolescents and young adults they served.
Update: A change was made to this article on 10/26/10 to reflect the fact that funds from the Measure X parcel tax could be used for a variety of police and fire safety expenditures, including police officer recruitment and training.
Check out all of our Oakland elections coverage on our Campaign 2010 page.