Last week, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums threatened to lay off 140 cops as part of an effort to close an $83 million budget gap. The idea of cutting that many police positions in a crime-ridden city like Oakland seems unthinkable, even if violent crime is down more than 15 percent this year. But a closer look at the mayor’s plan reveals that it makes sense — as strange as that may sound. In fact, the city council is scheduled to take up the mayor’s proposal this week, and if there was ever a time for local politicians to stand behind Dellums, it’s now.
The reason is simple. If the council overrules the mayor and takes the police layoff plan off the table, it will jeopardize a $67 million, three-year federal grant. In fact, without the layoff plan, the city has virtually no shot at getting the grant. And without it, Oakland will have to gut services across the board. Indeed, it could even lead to the layoff of 203 total police officers, not 140, because of Measure Y, the city’s badly written community policing initiative. “If we don’t get those federal funds, we’re going to have to make major cuts — there’s just no other way to look at it,” City Administrator Dan Lindheim said in an interview last week. “There’s no way in hell, with the revenues that we have, can we fund the services we’re providing.”
The importance of the federal grant, and thus the cop layoff plan, cannot be overstated. For the city to qualify for the grant, it must be officially planning to lay off police officers. The grant comes from President Barack Obama‘s stimulus package, and it’s supposed to create or save cops’ jobs. In other words, no layoff plan, no grant.
Under Dellums’ budget proposal, the grant would pay for the 140 police officers — a little more than $22 million a year for three years. After that, the city would have to find money from its general fund to pay for the officers. City officials hope the economy will rebound by then, and the city will no longer be in such dire financial condition. In the meantime, the grant will allow the city to avoid an additional $22 million in cuts on top of the $57 million that Dellums already has planned to slash from the budget.
To obtain the grant, city officials are counting on Dellums’ connections in Washington, DC, and his ability to lobby Attorney General Eric Holder, whose office oversees the grant. The former longtime congressman knows Holder from when he served in the Department of Justice under Bill Clinton — another Dellums ally. Oakland City Councilwoman Jean Quan said Dellums has been in close contact with Holder concerning the grant. Dellums was elected mayor of Oakland in part because of hopes that his connections would lead to more federal funds for the city. Perhaps he can finally deliver.
The feds also should take Oakland’s grant request seriously because of the city’s high crime rate — it was ranked as the fifth-most-dangerous city in the nation last year by CQ (Congressional Quarterly) based on 2007 violent crime stats. Oakland also has far fewer police officers per capita than most other large cities, along with high poverty rates. In short, Oakland may need this grant more than any other city in America.
Nonetheless, the city’s chance of getting it will surely be scuttled if the council turns its back on the mayor’s cop layoff plan. It will be tempting, because the mayor’s proposal promises to be wildly unpopular. After all, one of Dellums’ few achievements since taking office more than two years ago was finally bringing the city’s police force up to its authorized strength of 802 last year, something that Jerry Brown never attained. Last Friday, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson echoed what is likely a widespread sentiment in Oakland when he came out against the cop layoff plan and wrote that he would rather close down city government one day a week than “lose a single police officer on the street.”
That’s an understandable position, but if the council adopts it, then the city’s financial problems could be devastating. To understand why requires a quick look at how the city budget works. The $414 million general fund budget, which is where the $83 million deficit lies, is taken up almost entirely by police, fire, and debt service the city is obligated to pay. In fact, according to the mayor’s budget, police will cost the general fund about $198 million this year, while the fire department costs about $104 million, and the annual debt service amounts to about $45 million (the biggest ticket item there being the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum — thanks again Don Perata, for that great Raiders’ deal). So that’s $347 million for just three items, which leaves only $67 million for nearly everything else city government does.
In other words, the city will have one helluva time balancing the budget without major cuts to the police and fire departments — unless Oakland gets that federal grant. It’s true that the mayor and the council need to push harder on cutting employee salaries. But the grant is essential, because if the city really does have to lay off police officers, it will be devastating.
The problem is Measure Y. The voter-approved parcel tax requires that the city maintain an authorized police force of at least 739 cops before it’s allowed to collect the $20 million in revenues that Measure Y generates each year. Of the $20 million, about $9 million goes to the police department to pay for 63 community policing officers.
But Measure Y’s minimum staffing requirement means that if the city were to lay off 140 officers, it would actually cost the city 203 cops. Here’s why. Only 739 officers are currently paid from the general fund. Measure Y pays for the other 63. So to balance the general fund, the city would have to do the layoffs from the 739 officers. But once it does that, then it can no longer collect the Measure Y parcel tax, meaning that it will also have to eliminate the 63 community policing officers. So a layoff of 140 officers from the general fund actually results in the loss of 203 cops. In other words, Oakland, a city mired in crime, could lose up to one-quarter of its police force. (Measure Y and an agreement with the firefighters’ union create similar impediments to layoffs in the fire department.)
But police layoffs would do more than cost the police department Measure Y funds. It would also result in the fire department losing $4 million a year annually, and a $6 million annual cut to violence prevention programs. In short, it would mean the end, at least temporarily, of Measure Y. Now, that may not really be such a bad thing, since Measure Y is such an awful law. But losing that many cops? That’s untenable. There’s no way around it, the city needs that grant, and so the council needs to support the cop layoff plan.
As much as this column has criticized Dellums over the years, he and Lindheim deserve credit for thoroughly understanding the budget problems and coming up with what appears to be the least painful solution. But if the grant doesn’t come through, then the mayor, administrator, and council will have to make some truly difficult choices.
And finally, it’s worth noting that Oakland’s high crime rate, which skyrocketed during Brown’s last year in office, may actually be falling. According to police department stats from last week, homicides plummeted 21 percent and overall violent crime dropped more than 15 percent in the first four months of the year. Property crimes are down 21 percent.
In his first two years in office, Dellums took a lot of heat for failing to lower the crime rate. But now that it’s dropping significantly, his decisions to beef up the police force and return the department to geographic policing may be paying off. Let’s hope it continues. Hell, if it keeps up, Dellums’ tenure as mayor might not turn out that badly after all.
Public Ethics Commission Punts
Last week, the city’s Public Ethics Commission punted on whether Oakland lobbyist Carlos Plazola had illegally lobbied last year on behalf of a nonprofit organization. Activist John Klein had filed an ethics complaint against Plazola, alleging that he failed to report a variety of lobbying activities, including when he urged city council members to vote against planning commission nominee Ada Chan. Dellums nominated Chan last year, but she was opposed by pro-development forces.
Plazola, whose lobbying clients include Oakland developers, maintains that he did nothing wrong. He said he opposed Chan and made other contacts with city officials not as a lobbyist, but as the volunteer chairman of the nonprofit Oakland Builders Alliance, a pro-development trade association. Plazola argued that because he wasn’t paid by the alliance, then it wasn’t lobbying under city law.
However, ethics commission Executive Director Dan Purnell disagreed. In a written report, Purnell interpreted the city’s ethics law as stating that volunteer board members do have to register as lobbyists and report their lobbying activity when they urge local officials to make a particular decision. Deputy City Attorney Alix Rosenthal concurred with Purnell’s legal interpretation.
But the seven-member ethics commission ruled that the city’s lobbying law was too vague. At issue was a section of the law that states that one definition of a lobbyist can include being “a salaried employee, officer, or director of any corporation, organization, or association.” Plazola argued that “salaried” applied to employee, officer, and director, meaning that you aren’t a lobbyist unless you’re paid, while Klein, Purnell, and Rosenthal maintained that “salaried” only applied to an employee, meaning that a volunteer officer or director could be a lobbyist.
Commission Chairman Andrew Wiener noted that the statute could be interpreted either way. As a result, he said, it would be unfair to sanction Plazola. Other commission members also noted that the city has never informed nonprofit volunteer board members that they would have to register when urging a particular governmental decision. In the end, the commission voted to dismiss the complaint against Plazola, and asked Purnell to clarify the ethics law. The commission also dismissed similar complaints against business alliance board members Kathy Kuhner, Joe DeCredico, and Jay Dodson, who also are developers. The commission will decide later whether to recommend to the city council that volunteer board members and directors also should register as lobbyists when they attempt to influence government. The council will then decide.
For now, the commission’s decision means that Plazola can keep meeting with council members in private — at least for the time being — and not report it as lobbying as long as he says he’s doing it on behalf of the pro-development group and not his developer clients. After the meeting, Plazola said he was “happy” that the commission made “the right decision.”
But Klein was undeterred. He believes Plazola is using the Oakland Builders’ Alliance as a front so that he can lobby in secret. Klein said he plans to file another complaint against Plazola on the grounds that he should have disclosed his lobbying activity because he is, after all, a paid officer of his own lobbying firm.