Early Monday morning KPFA hosted the Community Democracy Project and At-Large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan on their UpFront segment with Cat Brooks for a discussion on the city administration’s proposed budget cuts. The cuts include reducing Fire Department services and layoffs to other departments. CDP member Blake Hihara woke up early to make the case for participatory budgeting as a path to defend services and city workers in the future.
Listen to the audio recording and read the transcript of the segment below, or listen to the full morning show on KPFA’s site.
It’s just past 8:33 in the morning. You’re listening to Upfront. I’m Brian Edwards-Tiekert.
And I’m Cat Brooks and the city of Oakland is looking at a $62 million budget landfall, causing the mayor to talk about cutting the fire department. We are joined by city council member Rebecca Kaplan to talk about what city council’s response to that is. Good morning, Rebecca.
Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
It’s a pleasure to have you on the show. Talk to me about how we got to a $62 million budget issue in the city of Oakland.
Yes, thank you. It’s important to understand how we got here, which is that the administration – without budget authority and without a public vote – gave an extra $32 million to the police department that was not allocated. And that was primarily spent not on fighting crime, but on sending hundreds of officers to peaceful demonstrations, and even sending police officers to help the sheriff conduct evictions. And so, you know, they are trying to tell people that the financial losses are only due to the economic downturn. But the economic downturn accounts for less than half of the losses. The majority of the losses are caused by the administration spending money they were not authorized to spend.
But we have this issue every single year with police overtime, correct? I mean, it’s a budget issue every year. It’s something that activists have been talking about for quite some time.
Yes, we’ve been talking about it. Activists have been talking about it. Lots of people have been fighting about the illegal overspending in prior years, it tended to average about $15 million a year. This past year, it was $32 million in one year, which is the most it’s ever been.
How did it go up so much when the eyes on it were more intense? I mean, an audit was actually called for and executed on overtime.
Yes, an audit was called for and executed, the auditor called for specific controls to be implemented, and the city administrator did not implement them. And in fact, in June, the City Council voted to give direction that they must create a tracking and accountability system for police overtime so that we would know who authorized what overtime, that there would be controls on unauthorized overspending, and thus far they’ve flat out refused to implement it. The Council also passed a directive that the city must stop using police for special events. So when a group tries to have an event, they get told, you know, you have to hire $20,000 worth of police or you’re not going to be allowed to have your festival or your parade. We ordered that that be stopped. They have not completed issuing that order either. And so what we seem to be seeing here is a willful disregard of the law to spend money that was not budgeted. And now, having spent money that wasn’t budgeted, to turn around and say: “Oh, no, there’s a fiscal crisis, so now we have to cut things that the community desperately needs.” And rather than cut the departments that overspent, they’re proposing to center the cuts on the departments that were not over budget; and in fact, the fire department came in under budget, yet the mayor and the administrator have been pushing to have cuts happen in the fire department.
Talk more about the the mayor’s austerity budget cuts. In addition to fire, where else is she looking to chop?
They have proposed that there be significant layoffs of civilian workers. And I think it’s important for the public to understand that when you cut the people who keep the trash off the streets, who maintain the sewers and the storm drains, who maintain our public infrastructure: that puts everyone at risk. That worsens quality of life in the community and disproportionately in our hardest hit community. And of course, laying off of the lower wage workers in the middle of an economic crisis only tends to make things worse. Finally, they’ve also refused to fill positions that would make the city money. We voted to add an evening and weekend shift at the permit counter so that small business owners and small homeowners could get their projects more readily approved, like adding an accessory dwelling unit to your house, or revising or reopening a small business, and they haven’t hired those people either. So the positions that would allow us to recover equitably and to grow our economy, they’re leaving those vacant, and then claiming that the economic crisis they are causing is the reason they should be allowed to make cuts to the budget in secret without public authorization.
“[The city administration] has been cutting the low wage positions, street cleanup, services. Under participatory budgeting… people actually increase the budgeted money going towards social services that directly impact their quality of life.” -Blake Hihara
I want to bring our second guest into the conversation. Blake Hihara is a member of the Community Democracy Project, a volunteer-run campaign empowering residents to participate in the budget process. Good morning, Blake.
Hi, thanks for having me.
Thanks for joining us. When you hear “$62 million shortfall” where do your thoughts go?
That the system is broken. That’s entirely what Community Democracy Project is about: bringing direct democracy to the people of Oakland, putting the city budget in people’s hands, because as you had mentioned previously, this issue with police overtime, police overbudgeting, its yearly, this is not something that is new, it keeps happening consistently over and over. That’s why we need huge systemic change. And the People’s Budget initiative that Community Democracy Project was gathering signatures for is one way to put that money into the hands of the people and really distribute it towards the services that people of Oakland want. Councilmember Kaplan was talking earlier about, you know, the budget has been cutting the low wage positions, street cleanup, services. Under participatory budgeting, like the People’s Budget initiative, people actually increase the budgeted money going towards social services that directly impact their quality of life. I’ve talked to thousands of people on the streets of Oakland, when collecting signatures for our initiative, for our city charter amendment, and what people care about is safety. They care about good streets so they can walk their kids to school, they care about filling in those potholes so they don’t have to pay thousands of dollars to fix their suspension on their car that they have to use to commute. They care about having a livable community. And when we’re spending that money on police budget overtime, you know, decommissioned military vehicles and things of that nature, it really just points to systemic change. And that’s what we’re trying to bring.
Our budget is a moral document. Right now it’s not representative. -Blake Hihara
Blake, you’re talking about participatory budgeting. The city council – and Rebecca hop in here if I’m wrong – but the city of Oakland says it has participatory budgeting. That’s what it does at the beginning of a budget cycle when it has its meetings with its constituents. What is the city not doing that you would like to see it do?
Yes. Oh, sorry. Go ahead.
I’ll say quickly that the city of Oakland does have participatory budgeting. The last time I believe they did it was in 2017 or 2016 with distribution of community development block grants. But there is no – Participatory Budgeting is about putting the power for budgeting decisions directly in the hands of the people. There’s, besides the very small fraction of money that people get to decide with community development block grants, which are federal grants that people can choose. I believe in the 2016-2017 program that people could choose, oh, we need updated streetlights here, we need potential homeless services here for this encampment, small projects of that nature. Really, that’s just trying to, you know, fix things with a band-aid. It’s not true participatory budgeting like has been done in Brazil.
Yes, absolutely. And what I would add, which surprises many people, in terms of the missing piece, is the requirement that the administration actually implement the budgets that are adopted through this process, right. So when these public meetings take place, and people give their input, and then there’s a vote, to put money into certain specific things – like the council voted to add more dumping remediation crews, that was something that came out of community demands – the mayor and the administrator have just refused to hire those positions. So in terms of your question about, you know, what else needs to change to ensure that this community participation is truly respected is real consequences for the administration if they just flatly refuse to implement the community’s wishes as expressed through a public process.
I’ll say that, yes, we do need accountability and execution from our administration. But as it is, the city council, they have total control of the budget. We leave so many people outside of – you know, people cannot a lot of people who live in Oakland who are residents, and will be affected by the choices that we make in our government, in our services, they do not get a voice in that. Formerly incarcerated people, recent immigrants (regardless of their documentation status), youth, that’s really important that those people’s voices are included in our budget. Our budget is a moral document. Right now it’s not representative. You know, that’s why The People’s Budget initiative that we’re gathering signatures for gives those powers that anybody, residents of Oakland, people aged 16 and up, formerly incarcerated people, you just have to be a resident of Oakland. And then you can use your voice to submit the budget that you would like, those get averaged out, and create a truly participatory budget that is a will of the people and serves the will of the people.
Councilmember Kaplan, the council doesn’t have complete control the budget, though, right, that the mayor has some say there?
Well, exactly. And so the the problem we’ve been having, so for example, when we talk about the immigrant communities not being heard, immigrant communities and advocates were very strongly advocating around not letting OPD collude with ICE in raids. And those voices were heard, the council voted to adopt what the communities were asking for, and then the mayor, the administrator, and the police chief just completely disregarded it, and sent Oakland Police to help with the ICE raid. And so the things that the community has been asking for have been disregarded. And one of the questions we’ll be asking at today’s finance committee, is what law specifically is the mayor and the administrator saying allows them to authorize spending that wasn’t budgeted and to cut things that were budgeted? So for example, we have – people depend on the fire department, not only to fight fires, but they are also medical first responders on medical calls in this growing pandemic. And so their decision to cut those services – which they admit could cause people to die because of lack of immediate response to heart attacks, strokes, and other things – was made in secret without the public, without the council, without a public meeting. And so I absolutely think participation is essential. And what we’ve had is not only the public being disregarded, but the public’s voice and the public’s right to know and the public meeting process being disregarded by this administration.
Councilmember Kaplan, where are we in our budget process? Why are we doing budget cuts now?
Well the budget normally is adopted on a two-year basis, in the spring of odd years, and so what’s going on right now is off-cycle. The administration’s budget proposal for the next two-year cycle would be normally due this coming May. And they have instead proposed to make cuts right now to the current budget. And actually, I should say, they haven’t just proposed to make cuts, they have made cuts, without a public meeting, without notice to anyone, without a vote of anyone, neither of the council nor of the public. They’ve just gone ahead and made cuts. And they’ve said it’s because of the financial problems. But the financial problems are largely ones they’ve caused. And so I think we have a very dangerous situation where they would be motivated to cause a financial crisis if they believe that causing a financial crisis would give them the right to reallocate funds secretly away from what the public has authorized.
Okay, now, the next thing I’m going to ask you, I need you to go slowly, Councilmember Kaplan, because I’ve heard you explain it before. And it’s important, but I want our listeners to be able to follow: You found $10 million. Where did you find it? And where are you proposing it go?
Thank you. No, and it’s really important, because the administration in saying they’re making very devastating cuts, have said there’s just no other money to be found. And so I’ve been asking them for a list of other funds. They haven’t provided those fund balances fully yet. And so I have been looking for funds in other places. And in my first week, as a board member, on the Coliseum Authority board, I was able to find out that there are millions of extra dollars sitting in reserves at the Coliseum Authority, which 50% of them are property of the city of Oakland. And this is because we won a lawsuit against the Warriors. The Warriors were saying they were going to refuse to pay the bond debt on the arena. And we won, they have to pay the bond debt. So the money that was being held in reserve in case we lost the lawsuit is now extra money. And $10 million of that extra money is property of the city of Oakland. And so I’m bringing an action for us to take that money back to the city of Oakland and use it to preserve vital public services.
Which services, in addition to fire, are you focused on?
We are advocating to not only preserve fire services, but to preserve the other frontline services that people rely on, including the types of things like keeping the streets clean, filling the potholes, maintaining our public facilities, providing for the mental health of the public, providing for the support for the public in these very tough times. And making sure that we’re not cutting things that will make life worse for people.
Well, that all sounds like things like the mayor would support. Finding money that she says wasn’t there, what is the administration’s pushback?
I haven’t seen any comment yet from the mayor about the money. I mean, she had previously publicly said there was no other money. So we’ve found at least $10 million just by looking at this one fund, and I’m continuing to look at other funds that have fund balances to be able to help solve this crisis. The administrator has said in a memo, that he does not recommend using these monies to save these vital public services because he says he thinks the downturn will continue to get worse. I think, you know, we need to understand now that they are proposing to have the downturn keep getting worse, because they are still not filling the positions that would let people rebuild, that would let small businesses revise and open. And so we need to insist on actions to solve the problem, not just say, “Oh, we expect it to keep being bad so people should just suffer.” We need to fix the revenue problem as well and not allow the continuing over-expenditures in one department that result in them proposing these horrible cuts.
How much of a difference might a federal relief bill make?
A federal relief bill could make a huge difference. And that’s another thing the council and the public has continued to ask for. Where is our advocacy on the federal level, not just to accept that things have to be horrible, but that we can take action to make them less horrible, including pushing the federal government and the state government to do more to support our communities. The CARES act, last round, gave Oakland $36 million and if we got that amount again that would close this gap. And we are pushing for more than that. We believe the Biden administration certainly should be delivering more to cities than what came out of the Trump administration last year. And in fact, Joe Biden has publicly stated his plan to do more than what was in last year’s bill. And so that’s something we all need to keep fighting for.
Councilmember Kaplan, there is (and you voted for) a task force, the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, whose job it is to identify at least 50% of OPD’s dollars and redirect them to social supports and services. How is that process playing out with this process? How are they impacting each other, or will they impact each other? Does the taskforce become null and void because these other cuts have to be made now? What’s happening?
The taskforce plan was to deliver recommendations to the council around March. And so I do think there’s a question about whether the push to go ahead and cut vital services right now, before that date, might be intended to try to sidestep and sabotage the work of the task force. I do think it’s important that we receive and seriously consider those Task Force recommendations which will be coming in the coming months.
“If you give [OPD] more money to spend on helping sheriffs conduct evictions or more money to spend on heavy-handed response to peaceful demonstrations, none of those things will reduce gun crime” -Rebecca Kaplan
The city of Oakland last year saw a 47% spike in violent homicides. We haven’t seen numbers like that since 2012. We are not that far into 2021 and we seem to be on the same track. What is your response to “We can’t defund the police, look at all this violent crime”?
We absolutely need to be cracking down on the flood of illegal guns that are being poured into our community. And that’s why the council voted to fund positions to trace illegal guns and to shut down the sources of illegal guns. And what some people might be shocked to know is in the memo from the city administrator that’s in today’s finance committee report, he states that those positions were frozen “by the administrator” – the administrator ordered the police department not to hire positions that the council voted for and funded to crack down on illegal guns. And so I think it is incredibly disingenuous for them to say, “Oh, we need more money because of the gun crime,” at the same time that they are flatly refusing to fund the actions to crack down on gun crime. And, you know, I know that there’s a tension and people worry that, you know, if we care about gun crime, does that mean we should just give unlimited money to the police department. But I think that everybody would recognize that, if you give them more money to spend on helping sheriffs conduct evictions or more money to spend on heavy-handed response to peaceful demonstrations, none of those things will reduce gun crime. We have to actually target the sources of the illegal guns and shut them down. And the administrator in the department has flatly refused to fill those positions, even after they’ve been voted for at a public meeting. And so we will be asking them about that again today. But I think it shows an incredible disrespect for the lives of Oaklanders for them to be refusing to fill the positions that go after the illegal guns, while they claim that that’s the thing that they claim they’re concerned about.
If I can respond real quick, the police budget…
Hold on, hold on a second Blake. I want to push you a little bit there, Councilmember Kaplan. We had a problem containing illegal guns last year, excuse me, in 2019 and 2018 and 2017. What shifted last year?
They cut the ceasefire program, they froze the gun tracing positions, and of course, there also have been problems going on, that are not only in Oakland, in terms of the federal government refusal to shut down illegal gun dealing as well. But at the Oakland level, they did make cuts and freezes specifically in the types of programs that were targeting the illegal guns.
Okay, Blake, go ahead.
This brings me back to the point of we need systemic change. The police have 44% of the general budget. We’re talking about prevention of guns, prevention of violence; we have already a Violence Prevention department in Oakland. Is anybody aware of how much they’re funded? They get 0.1% of the general budget. That’s explicitly in their name of the department. They’re supposed to prevent violence. They’re not getting funded adequately at all to do this sort of violence prevention, keeping guns off our streets, working with communities to make them safer. This is exactly why we need more accountability, and more direct democracy, participatory budgeting because, frankly, sometimes, city council is not getting the budget passed that the people want. People can go to hellapeoplepower.org to take our Oakland budget survey and submit a budget that they would pass. I’m looking at the results right now, people would rather have 5.9% of the general budget devoted to violence prevention, rather than police. Police got knocked down from 44% to 9.9% of the budget. This was collected by 300 people who responded to this survey in Oakland. Really, if you go out and talk to the people in the streets, this is what they want. They don’t want so much money going to police. They want services, exactly as Councilmember Kaplan was saying, that serve and protect them. Like you said Cat, we’re already, what, 25 days into 2021? And we’re on, what, 13 more murders, more homicides than January of last year? Things have to change and putting the power of the budget into the people’s hands is what Community Democracy Project thinks is going to make the change.
Thank you so much for your – hm?
What time is the finance committee meeting today? We gotta wrap it up.
Yes. So the finance committee is at 1:30pm today on zoom. I also want to say thank you for the point about the Department of Violence Prevention. I agree that the cuts the administration’s been making to the Department of Violence Prevention are unacceptable, and we’ve actually scheduled that to the February 9 Public Safety Committee for us to make changes in that and put more money into the Department of Violence Prevention. So that’s on the February 9 public safety agenda. But today’s finance committee agenda where we’ll be asking and pushing for these questions around the vital public services is at 1:30 today.
Okay, thank you both for joining us.
Thank you so much.
We’ve heard from Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who represents the entire city of Oakland as its council member at large, as well as Blake Hihara, a member of the Community Democracy Project, a volunteer-run campaign empowering residents to participate in the budget process. And that does it for today’s show. Upfront airs weekday mornings at 7am. We post information about topics and guests online at kpfa.org where you can dig through the archives, subscribe to the show’s podcast, and connect to us on social media. If you’d like to give us feedback on something you heard or suggest something for us to cover, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.