Jean Quan picked up a black flip-phone and started dialing. “Hello, I’m Mayor Jean Quan, and I’m here to speak with you about a critical public safety item on your ballot this November,” the Oakland mayor said. “Have you heard of Measure Z?”
The mayor sat at a table in a downtown Oakland campaign headquarters, reading lines from a script – the same script being read aloud into cellphones by four other people who want her job this November. All five, the incumbent mayor and her top-polling opponents, were going through lists of names and numbers of Oakland residents as part of an effort to renew a tax that promises to fund public safety departments and crime prevention organizations.
The candidates had gathered last Monday afternoon for a news conference and phone banking session to show their shared support for the November ballot’s Measure Z. At the Yes campaign headquarters in downtown Oakland, Quan—joined by Rebecca Kaplan, Libby Schaaf, Bryan Parker and Joe Tuman—made the public safety case for renewing the tax.
“Help us continue these programs that have saved lives,” Quan said to reporters. City Councilmember Libby Schaaf noted the many community programs, such as Operation Ceasefire and the Unity Council, that receive funding through the tax. Operation Ceasefire is a violence prevention strategy the city uses in conjunction with its police force, community groups and other agencies, while the Unity Council provides social and financial services to help communities in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood and beyond. “We know these programs work,” Schaaf said. “We need more, not less safety. Oakland cannot afford to get less safe.”
Kaplan, like all the candidates, repeated that taxes would not be raised under Measure Z—that if approved, the measure would continue existing taxes on property and parking. “Don’t keep going through cuts that lead to devastating crime,” she said. Candidate Parker acknowledged that the city “can’t rely on taxes to pay for things” into the future, but said the city needs immediate public safety resources.
Tuman said he was cynical about Measure Z’s predecessor, a similar public safety parcel and parking tax called Measure Y, which voters overwhelmingly approved in 2004. He was critical of what he called inadequate accountability of the taxes collected from that measure, which “sunsets,” or expires, at the end of this year. Tuman nevertheless wants more officers on the streets, and said he believes Measure Z is the only way to keep that number from dipping dangerously low. Candidate Dan Siegel was unable to attend the news conference, but has also given his support for the measure.
Oakland voters who decide to support Measure Z on the November ballot would be approving the continuation of a $99.77 annual parcel tax (adjusted each year for inflation) on single-family homes. Other properties are taxed at different rates. The parking tax surcharge, applicable for every rented parking space in commercial parking lots in the city, is 8.5 percent. The money collected, should the measure be approved, is supposed to be divided between public safety services and violence prevention efforts, and the accompanying oversight and evaluation costs.
The rules for implementing the tax, which must be approved by two-thirds of voters in this election, require the city to maintain 678 officers on staff (52 more than Oakland currently has on the force) and provide $2 million for fire services. The officer requirement is a clarification from Measure Y, which initially only called for the city to budget for a certain number of officers, but did not specifically obligate the city to hire those officers. Another part of the public safety plan, funded by a portion of the tax money, included hiring problem solving officers, or PSOs, who were assigned to neighborhoods, or beats, to create a community policing structure.
A City Auditor’s report on the measure, released this summer, determined that if Measure Z passes, the continued tax would be expected to bring in $277.2 million over the next 10 years. Even with the tax money, the city would need to spend an additional $7.3 million annually, broken down to $2 million for fire services and $5.3 million to hire more officers. To keep receiving the tax, the city would have to guarantee there are no less than 678 officers on the force as soon as July 1, 2016. As a safeguard, the city would budget for 700 officers to account for unexpected firings, resignations and other causes of officer attrition. If the number of officers drops below the limit, the city would stop collecting the taxes immediately.
A “no” vote this November would eliminate the tax, effective January 1, 2015. Proponents have argued that the measure’s defeat would immediately bring about a 50-officer reduction in the police force. But some who are opposed, such as Charles Pine, a retiree who has lived in the Allendale neighborhood for more than 20 years and belongs to a group called Oakland Residents for Peaceful Neighborhoods (ORPN), argue that this assertion is a scare tactic. ORPN was founded 10 years ago, six months after Measure Y passed.
Pine said the organization’s members are against the measure because “Measure Y didn’t give us what we were promised.” He said he believes that even if Measure Z is adopted, police staffing levels may again drop, but that the city would nevertheless be able to continue collecting the money for other public safety programming. “Defeat Measure Z now, and show City Hall the voters are not going to go with this fraud,” he said in a phone interview.
Marleen Sacks, a Pleasanton-based attorney who lives in Oakland’s Lincoln Heights and has been one of the city’s most vocal and persistent critics of Measure Y, said she is equally dubious about this successor plan. Sacks sued in 2008 and 2010, unsuccessfully, over what she called city violations of Measure Y’s requirements.
Sacks objected to how the city used the money for the police services portion of the tax. In 2008, she argued that the city didn’t use the tax to hire all 63 PSOs, who were intended to be community police officers. Instead, she argued the city put the money toward other police services. Later in 2010, after a drop in police officers, she argued that the city had not maintained its minimum of 803 officers, but continued to collect the tax. This eventually led to the creation and passage of Measure BB in 2010, which modified the requirements for police staffing and allowed the city to continue collecting the tax revenue. Sacks said she considers Measure Z as the same kind of public safety plan. “No city should become dependent on parcel tax money,” Sacks said. “If you are going to ask voters for $100 a year parcel tax, there should be some guarantee of improvements.”
And Oakland City Council District 4, candidate Jill Broadhurst is one of the lone politicians in the Oakland election opposing the tax. She said she is not opposed to taxes, but cannot support this plan. “It’s not the money, she said, “it’s the fact that the council is willing to go back to the public with something that has holes in it.”
Broadhurst, who is executive director of the East Bay Rental Housing Association, called Measure Z a “Band-Aid” type of policy that doesn’t give the residents what she thinks they are looking for: more police on the streets. “The public is really tired of the status quo,” she said. In past years, she said, voters have been “generous” in approving parcel taxes. At this point, she said, she is concerned that Oakland has set up a system under which a special tax is required to run any city program. She called for a deeper look in city budgets to slash waste and find more public safety funding—something she considers a priority for residents.
Oakland Unite program analyst Sara Rose Serin-Christ said there are about 25 community-based organizations that receive money from the existing Measure Y funds, including those that address domestic violence; sexually exploited children; young offenders; and employment and re-entry services for formerly incarcerated youth. Independent external evaluators are hired to put out annual evaluation reports, and despite the concerns of critics like Pine and Sacks, Serin-Christ said those reports have showed success.
Part of a 2012 report reviewing the entirety of Oakland Unite services found, for example, a two-thirds drop in job training program participants arrested for new offenses following enrollment. More funding “would allow us to continue these really, really vital services that have had an impact on decreasing violence in Oakland over these past 10 years,” Serin-Christ said.
The measure made it to the ballot when about 18 months ago, city staff and members of the community organization Make Oakland Better Now! put together the proposal and brought it to the city council. Oakland City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, District 3, was a key proponent of the public safety funding.
Financial support for Measure Z through the committee Neighbors for a Safer Oakland 2014 has reached more than $110,800, according to city filing records from the last reporting period, which ended at the end of September. Most of the money came from the International Association of Firefighters Local 55 with a $100,000 contribution. The opposition has no organized campaign.