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Oakland City Council hears report on problem-solving officers at Tuesday’s meeting

on March 16, 2011

Limited staffing and budget constraints hamper Oakland’s recently reinstated problem-solving officers, Deputy Chief Eric Breshears said in a report presented to the City Council Tuesday. Breshears said the police department is optimistic about the program but has faced challenges in implementation since its reinstatement in January. Following the report, the council took care of other business, finalizing a new zoning ordinance and hearing a report on the city’s projected budget deficit for the end of the fiscal year.

Breshears said the police department runs the program in ways that vary from the language of the Violence Prevention and Public Safety Act, also known as Measure Y, a parcel tax that partially funds the problem-solving officers. “There’s got to be some differences because of the staffing, implementation and deployment issues we’ve had,” Breshears said.

The 57 problem-solving officers and 6-member crime reduction team came from the current pool of police staff, and these officers require senior officers to fill extra supervisory roles, Breshears said. He added that the initial intention of Measure Y was to bring in additional officers, not to reassign active officers to new roles. But budget constraints prevent the police department from hiring new officers, because “measure Y does not fully fund the positions it requires or the supervisory and staff officers,” Breshears said.

As a result, the problem-solving officers are spread out further, serving beats with larger populations than when police staff levels were at their highest in 2009 and early 2010, according to figures released in the report.

“Measure Y provides flexibility in how the positions are staffed,” Breshears said.

The police department reinstated the problem-solving officers in January after they were cut in July 2010; at that time, the Oakland city council had laid off 80 police officers to fill the budget deficit, and overall police staffing levels fell below the Measure Y requirement of 739 officers. The city could no longer collect the parcel tax, which resulted in the loss of about $20 million in funds for Measure Y programs like problem-solving officers.

In November 2010, Oakland residents approved Measure BB, which removed the staffing requirements and allowed the city to collect the tax again. But the funds can’t bring the problem-solving officer program into full operation, Breshears said.

The officers work with neighborhood crime prevention councils and other community groups to single out entrenched problems faced by an area, such as blight or prostitution. Breshears said that while Measure Y defines a problem-solving beat as serving between 5,000 and 7,000 people, funding limitations now require fewer beats that encompass more residents. While Measure Y recommends 57 problem-solving beats, each with its own officer, the police department has reverted to using the 35 beats it uses for patrol officers. Some problem-solving officers work in one beat, while others move between multiple beats.

Breshears said this way of staffing provides more flexibility for problem-solving officers, who can “move freely” between beats while developing strategies for addressing community problems. “We anticipate this program really expanding and improving throughout the year,” Breshears said.

Peter Barnett, vice chair of the Measure Y Oversight Committee, asked the council and police department to follow the act’s recommendation of assigning one dedicated officer each to 57 problem-solving beats instead of 35. “We feel that’s better to have that done on a part time basis by a single officer.”

District 1 Councilmember Jane Brunner asked Breshears whether the police department had the authority to decide how many problem-solving beats to staff. Breshears said the language of Measure Y allowed it. “The resolution says that it’s 5,000 to 7,000 residents when feasible,” Breshears said. “It’s just not feasible at this time.”

After hearing Breshears’s report, the council moved on to finalize its vote on new zoning restrictions throughout the city. The council voted in favor of the changes at the previous meeting on March 1, and after listening to a spectrum of opinions from the public on new building height limits in Temescal, passed the ordinance. The law amends the city’s general plan and culminates over a decade of planning and input from city agencies and Oakland residents.

Residents and property owners from Broadway and Telegraph Avenue in north Oakland spoke on building height limits during nearly 30 minutes of public comment. The ordinance limits building heights on several blocks of these major roads but leaves the majority without limits. “Height belongs downtown, and as you go toward the community, you go lower,” said Brunner, whose district encompasses the areas affected by the height restrictions.

Members of the Urban for a Liveable Temescal-Rockridge Area spoke in favor of unlimited building heights. The limits, ULTRA member John Gatewood said, “are set too low. We need to direct higher density to transit corridors.”

Property owner Noah Friedman agreed, saying he’s been working with Brunner to get the problem addressed with the option of density bonuses, which the city could award to developers who meet certain criteria such as including affordable housing in their buildings. But Friedman, who has said he and other property owners received no notice of the zoning changes that will restrict their lot on 42nd Street and Broadway, said he would have preferred to have the opportunity to give his input sooner in the process. “It’s a little upsetting that [Brunner] didn’t realize that these people weren’t involved,” Friedman said. “Now that we know, we’ve come out.”

George Skinner of the Rockridge Community Planning Council said he’d been living in his home on Terrace Street since 1979, and said he advocated for a 45-foot height limit on buildings near his home. He acknowledged that others opposed his viewpoint, but said, “Nobody has gotten exactly what they want. That’s the nature of a compromise.” He also said that debating between 45 feet and the other proposed height limit of 60 feet in his area “Seems to be like beating a dead horse.”

Councilmember at-large Rebecca Kaplan said it was time to move forward with the understanding that the council would come back to develop a density bonus program. “We are in a major financial crisis,” Kaplan said, a problem the city faces mostly, “because our revenue is inadequate to the tasks of a major city.” Using  density bonuses to promote development should be a priority, Kaplan said, adding “I’m not willing to wait ten years for us to have a more vibrant development.”

The council next discussed the current state of the city budget after hearing a report on the projected deficit for the 2010 to 2011 fiscal year. Staff projected a $6.5 million shortfall in revenues for the year, mostly stemming from lower than projected parking meter and parking ticket revenues. Sale of a fire training facility might result in a $3 million boost to revenues, but the council won’t make further plans to close the deficit until property and business license tax revenues come in and mayor Jean Quan releases her initial recommendations at the end of the month.

District five councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente said that while the loss in revenues for 2010 to 2011 might look smaller than in years past, the overall budget deficit is growing. “We’re going to be looking at $100 million, easy, that we’re going to have to figure out,” he said.

Photo: Oakland resident Joyce Roy speaks in favor of allowing developers to build taller buildings on Broadway and Telegraph Avenue at Tuesday’s city council meeting. The council voted in favor of 45 foot limits for some blocks on Broadway, limits that speakers like Roy said would prevent the city from planning for density. Others said the limits would preserve liveable residential neighborhoods.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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