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Chinatown residents attend a lunchtime Tai Chi session at Lincoln Square Recreation Center in the building's gym.

Oakland tries a new way to prioritize city improvement projects: by considering equity

on May 14, 2019

Rows of people sway together during a lunchtime Tai Chi session at Lincoln Square Recreation Center. Not a space is left in the full-size gym. “In and out,” the instructor chants, reminding the practitioners to breathe as they try to avoid colliding with each other and the walls. 

“It’s like this every day,” says Gilbert Gong, the center’s longtime director, referring to the size of Friday’s crowd as he surveys the attendees. In the corner of the gym, he stops to look at something else. He pulls back a piece of red paper held in place by masking tape. Behind it is a dark hole full of dry-rotted wood. “This is the problem,” says Gong, pointing to the wet interior.

Gong says he’s been asking the City of Oakland for funding for improvements to this municipal facility ever since he transferred here 20 years ago. For decades, Gong says, the center has been “layering Bandaids”—fixing small issues but not addressing the larger issue, which is that they need a new building.  “If we fix the roof, we still have the electrical issues. We still have the plumbing issues,” says Gong. “We can’t meet the demands of the community.” 

Every year, he says, he’s been told it’s not the center’s turn. But this year is different: Now his center is at the front of the line, thanks in part to a new method the city is using to determine which facilities get money for major repairs. 

The ceiling in the lobby of Lincoln Square Recreation Center is tearing in places.

For the first time ever, Oakland city officials are considering a new question when deciding which capital improvement projects (CIP) to fund: Is the project equitable? In other words, will the proposed renovation to a city facility serve an underserved community? To answer that question, city staff spent the last year and a half developing a new scorecard to rank proposed projects. The scorecard incorporates traditional criteria like whether the project is state-mandated and how soon construction can begin, but the criteria that carries the most weight is equity.

The idea originated with Oakland’s Department of Race and Equity, a two-person team whose sole focus is to reduce race-based disparities in Oakland. The department started with just Director Darlene Flynn in 2016. Analyst Jacque Larrainzar joined in 2017, and this February the department hired another assistant. Since its inception, the group has been working with every city department to try to infuse the principle of equity into government through hosting trainings, attending other departments’ meetings, serving on advisory boards and just talking with decision makers one-on-one about what equity looks like. 

“When we don’t center equity, inequity happens,” says Larrainzar. In other words, when city officials don’t make a conscious effort to address resource disparities among racial groups, those with more continue to get more. Those with less never catch up. 

One of their primary contributions was the Equity Indicators Report. Released last July, the report compiled existing data to show disparities between white people and people of color in Oakland. The 160-page report was done by the Department of Race and Equity staff along with data scientists at City University of New York (CUNY). The data highlighted a number of disparities: black students are most likely to be suspended and black residents are more likely to be homeless. It also showed that the quality of parks in minority communities—specifically City Council District 7 in East Oakland—is worse than parks in other areas of the city. Bathrooms are either locked or not working, gang graffiti covers structures and fences and, in some cases,  parents note they are afraid to bring their children to the park. 

Motivated by the report and inspired by the department’s work, in 2017 Elliot Karl—an Oakland Department of Transportation staffer—worked to develop the methods to make equity a priority in the 2019 budget cycle. He offered a method the city could use to assess funding equity in a tangible way: a scorecard. (Karl is adamant that he cannot take credit for the entire idea, emphasizing that the final scorecard was the product of a team of Oakland city staffers. What he did was explicitly call out equity considerations within multiple elements of the scorecard.)

“The big change wasn’t whether or not they cared about equity. It was whether there was a systemic way to track how projects ranked,” says Karl, speaking by phone from Chicago. (Karl no longer works for the city; he left the transportation department last summer to attend graduate school.)

Larrainzar loved the idea. “This was an opportunity to not only show how equity could work within the city, but also in the community,” she says. She felt it was an opportunity to help Oaklanders understand the nuances of the city’s budget process, something she believes is “kind of obscure to people.” 

Oakland’s budget is split into two parts: the general fund and capital improvements. Staffers like to think of the general fund as the city’s checking account. This is the pot of funding that pays for regular expenses like city workers’ salaries, and electricity and maintenance for city buildings. On the other hand, capital improvements are funded by something that’s more like a city’s savings account. These are irregular, one-time expenses that cover things like making major improvements to the roads, sewer systems or city-owned facilities like the Lincoln Square Recreation Center. These expenses are part of a biennial budget approved by the city council every other June. 

In the past, the city prioritized projects based on what Karl calls “standard criteria” that included answering questions like: Is the city required by state law to do this project? Will the city be sued if officials don’t fix it? Has the city already been sued? Is the project “shovel-ready”—that is, can the city begin construction immediately, or are there other planning steps that need to happen before any work can start? 

While city staff, including Karl and Larrainzar, agree that these criteria are important, they do not address inequities. “That’s why those disparities just keep widening and widening and widening,” says Larrainzar. 

But under the new process, staff are taking additional criteria into consideration. They added five new items: health and safety (does the project encourage a better lifestyle?); existing conditions (how out-of-date is the current infrastructure?); economy (will this project bring jobs and money into the community?); environment (does this project contribute to climate change?); and equity. Equity is the biggest factor on its own, and the concept is baked into the other five factors, but it can be boiled down to this: Does this project aid an underserved community, such as immigrants, single parents or minority groups? 

This is the scorecard the City of Oakland used to rank each proposed capital improvement project in this year’s budget cycle. Graphic courtesy City of Oakland.

Along with a few older sets of criteria, all of this adds up to one big 100-point scorecard. Each item is given a different point value, with equity and health and safety ranking the highest—16 points each. Existing conditions and economy are worth 13 points each. Environment and required work (an older criteria) are worth 10 points. Improvement (what’s the quality of service now?) and collaboration (will this serve multiple groups?) are worth eight points. Being shovel-ready is worth five points. 

Karl did not come up with the scorecard on his own. The final formula was developed by the Capital Improvement Program Working Group (CIPWG) along with members of the community. The working group included city staff primarily from the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Works, but also a variety of city staffers including Larrainzar. Last summer, the group asked for help from residents. According to staff, the group held four large-scale meetings and 24 community-specific meetings. The group also conducted a survey, asking 1,350 residents to rank their top criteria. The current scorecard is a direct result of that survey.

In addition to using the new scorecard, the city also is changing the way the requests for funding are made. In the past, CIP staffers from two city departments—Transportation and Public Works—requested and compiled proposed projects from every other city department. Staffers from departments like Human Services, Parks and Recreation, and Fire would turn in their proposals. Residents could not suggest a project proposal of their own; they could only advocate for or against one of these suggested projects during the public comment portions of city council meetings. According to Flynn, the only way people could get a neighborhood project funded was if they convinced a city department or councilmember to recommend that project for funding.  

“We don’t want a system that relies solely on political connection. We want a system that everybody can put their stuff in,” said Flynn. 

The new process allows community members to submit proposals directly to the Department of Public Works. In October, residents had a 30-day window to file a request. According to Sean Maher—the spokesperson for both the Oakland Department of Public Works and Department of Transportation—community members submitted 285 proposals. 

Through a separate process, that fall city department staffers also submitted 287 requests to staff in both the Department of Public Works and the Department of Transportation, as they had in the past. In November, the Department of Public Works and Transportation started considering each proposal. This time, they put the new scorecard to the test. 

Oakland officials have released scores for 175 of the  proposed projects. The proposal to build a new $238 million main library in Oakland scored the highest: 81 out of 100. Fixing recreation centers also ranked high. Arroyo Viejo Recreation Center in deep East Oakland—which needs a $14.5 million overhaul—scored 67.2. Brookdale Recreation Center—where staffers are hoping for a $10 million expansion project—scored 63.00. Lincoln Square Recreation Center scored the highest of any recreation center and fifth overall: 73.50. 

The two lowest-scoring projects recommended focused on the Oakland Museum of California. A $567,010 proposal for museum improvements scored 0, and seismic improvements to the museum’s collection center scored 21.5.

Lincoln Square Recreation Center Director Gilbert Gong said the center’s leaky roof caused this water damage in his office.

Now it’s up to Oakland’s elected officials to decide which projects will get funded. That process will play out over the next several weeks. The Oakland City Council began its budget process last Tuesday when staff from the Department Public Works presented their recommendations to the council. The department recommended the council fund 47 projects, totalling $192 million. The department did not just recommend the top-scoring projects, but a variety of high-scoring projects, most of which received more than 50 points. 

When asked via email, Maher said the recommendations are based on “funding constraints.” He said that certain funding sources can only be used in certain ways. For example, the museum project is funded by money that can only be used for seismic improvements.

The council is set to discuss whether to fund these recommended projects at a city council meeting on June 10. 

So far, the scorecard is garnering praise from several community groups. Francis Calpotura, the executive director for In-a(d)vance—a non-profit group that helps community organizations expand their outreach—says the scorecard is “the first example from the city that shows and reflects that commitment to equity.”

However, he says the rollout of the process “leaves much to be desired.” His organization has been working closely with the Sobrante Park Resident Action Council, a neighborhood group in East Oakland. 

Sylvia Brooks, a member of the council, says she had no idea the city was soliciting residents for proposals. “It’s been neglected for so long by the city,” said Brooks of the neighborhood she’s lived in since 1995. “We’re almost the lost child of the city.” 

Calpotura said city officials need to reach people like Brooks to consider their outreach “robust.” He suggests instead of reaching out through Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) groups, they should broaden their scope to include the most active community groups in neighborhoods—NCPCs or not. “Oakland is full of organizations that actually have deep roots in communities, and their residents and those organization have to be tapped,” said Calpotura.

Maher agrees that outreach needs to improve next time, especially in East Oakland. Of the four large-scale community meetings in June, only seven people attended the meeting in East Oakland, compared to the roughly 40 people who attended each of the three other meetings in West Oakland, downtown and in the Dimond neighborhood. 

“There’s a lot of reason for East Oaklanders to not believe the government. They’ve been disappointed at pretty much every turn,” said Maher. “My top priority is getting better at talking to East Oakland, getting better at listening to East Oakland.” 

Larrainzar believes when the city goes through the process of approving the budget in 2021, engagement will be better. Her concern right now is whether using the new scorecard will actually start to address disparities among Oakland neighborhoods. “There’s always that possibility—especially because no one has really done it this way,” says Larrainzar. 

She and others in the city believe this is the first time a municipal government is using equity as a criteria in the budget process. Since the rollout, she and other department members have been asked to speak about it at professional conferences, like the American Planning Association’s Conference, which was held in Oakland last month. 

While she is not aware of whether any other cities are actively working to implement their own equity scorecard, she is confident the idea is making “waves.” According to Flynn, that’s the goal: “To bring about serious systematic change.” But first, staff need to know if the method is effective in Oakland.  

“There’s a lot of eyes on it and a lot of pressure. But even if it doesn’t work, it’s better than what we had,” says Larrainzar. 

Lincoln Square Recreation Center director Gilbert Gong explains that nearly every event at his center is full, including the daily, two-hour Tai Chi session.

For the staff and participants at Lincoln Recreation Center, the new scorecard offers a chance that their facility will finally get funding. “Lincoln has been up there biding its time,” says Gong.

At 11:30 a.m. on a Friday, the center is still buzzing. Seniors are finishing Chinese orchestra practice, lunch is being prepared in the kitchen and kids from the nearby elementary school play outside on the basketball courts. Inside, Gong points out one last feature: his office. It’s packed with papers—flyers and summer camp sign-up sheets—but in the corner he’s saved space for one bright green plant. Above it is a baseball-sized hole in the ceiling. 

“The plant waters itself,” says Gong with a chuckle. When it rains, the hole turns into a built-in watering can—a feature Gong will be more than happy to give up for a new center. 

This story was updated on May 20,2019, to add requested comments from Sean Maher about why city staffers had selected their recommendations.

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