A gold plaque that says Office Of The Mayor.
Office of the Mayor at Oakland City Hall in Oakland, Calif. on Apr. 20, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

Many are still digesting the proposed 2023-2025 budget Mayor Sheng Thao released yesterday, but some Oaklanders are ready to share their impressions of what’s in the sprawling online document.  

Some are cautiously optimistic about the city’s prospects. Thao’s $4.2 billion plan zeroes out a historic $360 million deficit without laying off any city workers. It makes cuts to some essential services, including police and fire, but also includes heavy investments in affordable housing and safer roads.

“We had to make some tough choices in this budget but in the end, we not only avoided catastrophic closures and cuts, we made real investments in our shared future,” Thao said in a statement on Monday.

The Oaklandside spoke with several community leaders and stakeholders to hear what they like and don’t like about the budget.  

Half of the City Council appears to be on board with Thao’s plan

Thao has enjoyed a wave of support from her colleagues on the City Council, with most of them praising the budget’s overall contours.

On Monday, Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas commended Thao for investing over $200 million in affordable housing and for achieving a balanced budget without layoffs. Similar sentiments were echoed by Councilmembers Carroll Fife, Kevin Jenkins, and Rebecca Kaplan, who are part of Bas’ budget team.

“I’ve called for the integration of Oakland’s housing and homelessness programs, together with my colleagues,” Fife said, adding that she thinks the department mergers will help vulnerable communities.

Kaplan singled out the budget’s emphasis on expanding public safety alternatives like Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) and civilianizing OPD’s Internal Affairs as positive changes. She also hinted that she thinks more investment might be needed in traffic safety.

“The substantial investment in traffic/pedestrian/bike safety is a strong start, and we seek to identify additional funds for this critical need,” Kaplan said.

Mixed feelings about police and fire cuts

The Fire Department would delay adding another engine to its fleet under Thao’s plan. Credit: Amir Aziz

One of the most critical parts of Thao’s proposed budget is public safety, which continues to be a top concern for Oaklanders. Thao’s budget would increase OPD spending while cutting some vacant budgeted positions and overtime. It would also put substantial dollars into alternatives to policing, including the Department of Violence Prevention and MACRO, and it would civilianize internal affairs, the OPD division where police officers are assigned to investigate allegations of misconduct by other officers. By 2025, police misconduct investigations would be in the hands of the Community Police Review Agency, which is under the Police Commission.

Mariano Contreras, a member of the Oakland Latino Task Force, said he likes the mayor’s decision to shift internal affairs duties to civilians.   

“That’s been in the works for a while,” Contreras said, adding that this was one of the recommendations of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force two years ago. “I really like the idea that this is coming to fruition.”

Contreras said he’s also hopeful the flow of resources toward housing and homelessness will address other public safety concerns in Fruitvale. He noted that at a recent community meeting Fruitvale business owners said they were upset about an uptick in crime and frustrated by the city’s lackluster response. He said it would be useful if Thao’s budget maintains walking patrols for police.

“I’m really hoping it will increase from one to maybe three or four walking officers in Fruitvale,” Contreras said.   

Rashida Grinage, a coordinator for the Coalition for Police Accountability, an advocacy group that pushes for police reform, said Thao’s plan lines up with her campaign promises. However, Grinage said the city must retool its MACRO program to take on more police calls.

“With MACRO, more than resources are needed,” Grinage said. “What’s needed is a kind of revisiting of the original pilot, because what is being done now is really not conforming to the original mission.”

The original vision for MACRO was that its street teams would take a substantial number of non-violent calls directly from 911, responding with their de-escalation skills and resources and freeing up OPD to respond to violent situations.

Some of the most serious cuts in the proposed budget target the Fire Department, which with OPD consumes the largest share of city revenue. Under Thao’s proposal, Oakland would delay adding a new fire engine to its existing fleet, and would “brownout” an existing engine on a rotating basis, meaning not staff the engine to respond to calls.

Zac Unger, president of the Oakland firefighters union, said this is the fourth time in his career that Oakland has imposed a brownout.

“It’s always a really disappointing moment when we have to do that,” Unger said, adding that he anticipates a downstream effect of delayed emergency services. “There’s no way to close a fire engine without reducing service.”

Housing and helping the homeless—does the budget do enough?

Rev. Jeremy McCants and other East Bay faith leaders gathered at Oakland City Hall to present their moral budget framework to city officials on April 27, 2023. Credit: Eli Wolfe

A cornerstone of Thao’s proposed budget is spending over $200 million to create more affordable housing. This part of the budget has been well received by housing advocates, including Reverend Jeremy McCants, a faith-based organizer for the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy

Last week, McCants and a coalition of faith groups presented Oakland officials with a moral framework to help guide the city’s spending priorities. The coalition wants a bigger focus on affordable housing, public safety alternatives to police, protections for frontline workers, and a stronger safety net for immigrants.

McCants said Mayor Thao took a “progressive approach” that aligned closely to the coalition’s goals, especially on housing. But he’s concerned the city doesn’t do enough to bring residents into conversations about the budget.

“I know Councilmembers do the town halls and we have community meetings, but that’s what, maybe 1% of a district or a community that participates?” McCants said. “We have to make these discussions accessible to the everyday person.”  

Other advocates feel the proposed budget doesn’t adequately support Oakland’s most vulnerable residents. James Vann, a member of the Homeless Advocacy Working Group, said the money allocated for homelessness programs isn’t sufficient. 

“We’re trying to be considerate of the mayor and the city and the financial position of the city, and knowing there’s less money around, but we’re not too pleased that there hasn’t been an attempt to at least funnel some more money into services for homelessness,” Van said.  

Consolidating city departments–does it matter?

A centerpiece of Thao’s budget is the consolidation of several city departments. The stated goal is to align similar services and make the city nimbler at addressing some of its biggest problems, like delivering services to families and speeding up the permitting process for new development projects.

Dan Lindheim, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and former Oakland city administrator, said it’s unclear whether any of these changes will matter. He said that during his tenure with the city, including during the housing market meltdown and Great Recession from 2008 to 2011, Oakland broke up a department that contained some critical functions like planning, development, and housing. Lindheim said this didn’t seem to change much aside from creating more department heads.

“There are always reorganizations, they go on all the time,” Lindheim said. “Generally, it means the flag changes and not much else.”   

In her budget message, Thao said the reorganization will create a strong management structure and give these departments a “clear mission related to communities priorities” and save the city up to $2 million per year. 

Layoffs averted

A significant triumph for Thao was balancing the budget without laying off city workers. Thao received overwhelming backing from organized labor during her campaign, and this piece of her budget plan appears to have cemented that support.  

“It’s great that we don’t have any staff cuts, that’s a top priority,” said Angelica Lopez, chapter treasurer of SEIU Local 1021 and a recreation center director for the city. “Hopefully we have enough staffing to make sure the residents of Oakland have the services required to keep Oakland running.”

In a press release on Tuesday, Oakland labor leaders applauded Thao and urged her to fill understaffed city departments. In March, Thao announced a hiring freeze in several departments, which her administration claims will save the city tens of millions of dollars. Thao’s office plans to fill hundreds of vacant positions in poorly staffed departments that don’t rely on general fund monies.

Lopez also noted that some workers are concerned about the department consolidations because they don’t know how it will affect their jobs or programming.

More money and staff to create safer roads

Every councilmember has signaled support for road safety improvements and Thao’s budget promises some investments. Credit: Amir Aziz

Thao wants to spend significant money upgrading Oakland roads and making them safer for pedestrians and cyclists. The budget would spend $6 million on traffic safety programs and $1.6 million for bike and pedestrian plans.

Traffic safety is a top priority for Oakland councilmembers. It’s also a growing concern among residents: in March, advocates petitioned the city to reallocate $20 million from the general fund’s expenditures on police to instead pay for road safety.

Bryan Culbertson, a member of the Traffic Violence Rapid Response group, which protests bicyclist and pedestrian deaths, said the mayor’s budget is a great start. But he thinks more needs to be done.

“It’s not at the level we think is necessary to make a significant impact on traffic violence,” Culbertson said.

He said the mayor and council should consider how to make a greater investment in traffic safety, including staffing and policy changes. Transportation is one of the departments that Thao said the city can add staff to over the next two years. Culbertson said the city not only needs to set aside money for DOT positions, but also allocate sufficient funds to compete with neighboring cities.

“I would hope council and the mayor look at auditing their OakDOT vacancies and then make the proper adjustments so they can actually fill the staff positions,” Culbertson said.

“Democracy Dollars” delayed beyond 2024

One of Thao’s deepest cuts hits the nascent “Democracy Dollars” program. Oakland voters approved a ballot measure last November that would give residents money vouchers to support candidates of their choice in city elections. The $4 million for the vouchers was supposed to come from the city’s general fund. But Thao’s proposed budget postpones this money and the program’s rollout until the 2026 election cycle.

Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause and a former chair of the city’s Public Ethics Commission, told The Oaklandside he’s disappointed by the mayor’s decision to cut the program. He said California Common Cause and the coalition of organizations that campaigned for Democracy Dollars are still pushing for Oakland to do a partial rollout in 2024.

Stein’s biggest concern is that Measure W—the ballot measure that created Democracy Dollars—also repealed the Limited Public Financing Act. This law gave some funds to candidates running for public office in Oakland. Without limited public financing, the city doesn’t have any program to support campaigns.

“You put all those things together, and I fear it’s going to be harder for candidates to raise money, and privilege the candidates who have their own personal wealth to run on,” Stein said. “It would have potentially negative effects on Oakland’s democracy.”

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.