Oakland City Hall. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Oakland City Council meets today at 1 p.m. for a special study session to examine Mayor Sheng Thao’s budget plan for the next two years.

The $4.2 billion budget Thao unveiled last month balances out a historic $360 million shortfall in the city’s general fund. To do this without laying off any city employees, Thao has proposed major cuts across city services, including police and fire, and merging several departments for efficiency. Smaller programs like cultural affairs and the Public Ethics Commission will lose money for core programs and initiatives. The budget would freeze approximately 325 vacant budgeted positions.

Today’s meeting is a good opportunity for Oaklanders to learn the nitty-gritty details of how changes to the city’s budget will impact their day-to-day life. It’s also another chance for residents to share thoughts about the budget. 

Many councilmembers have held town halls to get feedback from constituents about their budget priorities, but locals can still send them ideas. It’s crucial to participate now because the City Council must approve a final version of the budget by June 30.

Staff from various departments have already released presentations that outline some of the most important changes on the table. These items will likely be discussed during the meeting: 

  • The Oakland Police Department claims Thao’s plan will shrink its baseline staffing to 710 sworn positions and reduce overtime, which is used to backfill patrol and conduct special operations, by 15%. The department’s presentation also states that Thao’s plan will reduce the number of police academies from eight to five. Last week, Thao announced the budget will support six academies and increase the number of officers from 700 to 730 over two years. It’s unclear where this discrepancy comes from.
  • Thao’s budget plan would also delay the rollout of a 25th fire engine and brown out an existing engine on a rotating basis. This reduction will potentially hamper the department’s ability to respond as quickly to emergencies. According to the fire department’s report, calls for service have increased from 51,000 in 2020 to 67,638 in 2022. The department recently received a $27.4 million grant to support hiring more firefighters, which could potentially offset the budget cuts, but OFD’s presentation doesn’t say whether this is the case.
  • The Economic and Workforce Development Department, which is being merged with the Department of Planning, Building and Economic Development, is already struggling with a vacancy rate of about 35%. The proposed budget will reduce its ability to promote resources for small businesses and administer cannabis, food, and film programs. It also deletes $500,000 in one-time funding to activate Frank Ogawa Plaza with events.
  • The Oakland Public Ethics Commission, which oversees election and campaign finance laws, is losing $4 million that was supposed to pay for the rollout of a voter empowerment program called Democracy Dollars in 2024. The initiative, which was approved by voters last year, would level the playing field in elections by giving voters a small amount of money to support candidates. The mayor’s proposal would delay funding the program until 2026, but the commission has asked the city to fund a scaled-back version in 2024.    
  • The Animal Services Department said proposed funding reductions could impact its ability to spay and neuter animals, which is required by state law before they can be adopted. According to its report, the department has received a 24% increase since 2022 in spay and neuter intakes. The department has warned that falling behind on these procedures may lead to the unnecessary euthanasia of healthy animals.
  • The Department of Workplace and Employment Standards, which enforces local labor laws and does educational outreach, will see little change in its budget. A coalition called Fair Labor Oakland recently held a press conference with the department’s director, Emylene Aspilla, City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, and Councilmember Janani Ramachandran to demand adequate funding so Oakland can ensure fair working conditions for low-income workers.
  • The Housing and Community Development Department is absorbing Community Homelessness Services, and it cuts a top city position overseeing the city’s homelessness policies. The Department says one of its biggest systemic concerns is that it doesn’t have enough money in its capital budget to cover affordable housing projects that are in the development pipeline. Thao has said one of the highlights of her budget is that it allocates over $200 million to build and acquire affordable housing over the next two years. This includes funding approved by Oakland voters through Measure U, an infrastructure bond.    
  • The proposed budget would invest significantly in road safety projects. The Department of Transportation would receive $5 million to fund neighborhood traffic safety and safe routes to school over two years. It’s also receiving $1.6 million to implement bicycle and pedestrian plans, and almost $3 million to stabilize collapsed roadways and repair sinkholes, among other fixes. The entire council has agreed to make road safety a priority this budget cycle. 
  • The budget freezes a number of vacant positions in the Office of Public Works, including street sweeper operators and maintenance workers who do trash pick-up and graffiti abatement. The department is asking for money to pay for deferred maintenance projects, and reports that it needs to upgrade and expand its enforcement surveillance program to monitor illegal dumping.
  • The Human Services Department, which is merging into a new department with Oakland Parks, Recreation & Youth Development, is losing oversight of homelessness services. The budget reduces funding for anti-poverty programming offered in partnership with Alameda County. It also transfers the Summer Food Program and Sugar Sweetened Beverage Tax Program to the City Administrator’s Office.

Numerous community organizations have urged city leaders to reconsider some of the proposed budget cuts. Last month, faith leaders representing 20 congregations in Oakland rallied outside City Hall and presented city officials with a “moral framework” to guide the budget process. The group has requested more investment in housing, public safety, and the use of public land in ways that benefit all Oaklanders.

This week, a coalition of community advocates and leaders held a press conference at City Hall, demanding Oakland officials divert spending from police and invest in other programs. Under Thao’s proposed budget, OPD’s budget increases from about $680 million to $723 million.

“Policing isn’t the solution to Oakland’s problems,” said Kijani Edwards of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

The coalition members pointed to the Department of Violence Prevention, which is slated to lose nearly $8 million million from its contracts budget, which supports community-based organizations that do violence prevention work. The budget slashes by 50% the funding for a shuttle program run by the Parks, Recreation & Youth Department that ferries low-income kids on field trips and to afterschool programs.

Many advocates have protested cuts to the Cultural Affairs Division, which offers grants to nonprofits, markets, festivals, and individual artists. Cultural Affairs, which makes up less than 0.4 percent of the city’s budget, would have its Cultural Funding Program cut by 20%. It would also reduce subsidies for cherished community organizations, including Children’s Fairyland, Chabot Space and Science Center, and Hacienda Peralta.

“Dis-investment in the arts runs counter to the true meaning of public safety,” said Dr. Ayodele Nzinga, Oakland Poet Laureate.

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.