Oakland residents begin voting on controversial parcel tax
on October 21, 2011
Oakland voters began mailing in ballots this week to decide the fate of a controversial $80 parcel tax that is being promoted as vital to help Oakland’s budget crisis and assailed as an unnecessary burden on homeowners, with no binding resolution to determine where it would be spent.
Measure I, which was drafted by City Councilmember At-Large Rebecca Kaplan, Councilmember Pat Kernighan (District 2) and Council President Larry Reid (District 7), would raise $60 million for the city over a five-year period. The tax would be a temporary fiscal emergency tax, requiring single-family homes to pay $80 annually, and multi-family and commercial properties to pay specified amounts not yet determined.
Low-income families would be exempt from the tax, but the income cut-off for this exemption is not specified in the measure. If voters approve Measure I, the city government would start collecting the tax in the fall of 2012, and continue until 2017.
The measure would raise money for a number of different services, with a major portion of the funds going towards public safety, including police, fire safety, and youth violence prevention programs. Since this is a mail-only election, eligible registered voters who reside in the city of Oakland can return their filled-in ballots by mail, submit them in person at at the registrar’s office, or vote there in person until voting closes on November 15. A supermajority 2/3rds vote will assure passage.
“We need more officers on the streets of Oakland,” said Jason Overman, Kaplan’s Director of Communications. “We are severely understaffed and we have a really critical problem with illegal guns.” Kaplan and the other pro-tax council members wanted to give Interim Police Chief Howard Jordan and his team all the support that they needed, Overman said, and Measure I was one way of doing so. The tax measure was written and proposed before former Police Chief Anthony Batts resigned and was replaced with Jordan.
The measure itself does not include details about how the funds collected would be allocated, but the City Council this week passed legislation that would determine how the money from the tax would be spent if the ballot measure is approved. The council’s resolution allocates $6.2 million dollars to the Oakland Police Department, $1.5 million to roads, and $1.2 million to city gardeners. It also includes provisions for street lighting for crime prevention purposes.
These allocation details have been a major point of contention amid councilmembers and the public. Since the council legislation that divides up the funds is not part of the wording of Measure I, it is non-binding, meaning councilmembers are allowed to change their minds about the allocation of funds after the election.
Councilmember Desley Brooks (District 6), who opposes Measure I, characterized the allocation legislation approved on Tuesday as a misleading and dishonest attempt by councilmembers to influence the public’s vote. “We can wait until after the election takes place to do this,” she said. “We’re making it seem like if we pass a resolution, we can’t change it, and this is not true.”
“Councilmember Brooks just stole my thunder, ’cause that’s exactly what I was going to say,” said District 4 resident Jim Dexter, who spoke at the council meeting. Referring to a previous parking lot and parcel tax the city of Oakland established in 2004, Dexter said, “When Measure Y was voted upon, it was very detailed (about where the money would be spent). Voters should know there’s no commitment here for Measure I.”
Brooks was joined by Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente (District 5) in her opposition to the measure. “I understand the argument of why we need the money,” De La Fuente said. “We always need the money! But we continue being one of the highest taxing cities, and putting the burden on homeowners.”
But the city’s dwindling resources, and public services cuts officials have had to make, are a major concern for advocates of the tax. “We cut $10, 11, 12 million from our budgets in the previous years,” said Mayor Jean Quan, who supports the tax. “You can’t balance a budget with all cuts.
Kaplan said that it was the council’s ethical and moral obligation to give voters some clarity about where the money from the tax would be spent if Measure I was passed.
In the ballots-by-mail election, voters are also being asked to decide on two other Oakland measures. Measure H would make the city attorney an appointed official, instead of an elected one; and Measure J would change the deadline for funding a pension plan for police and firefighters.
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