The entry way to the Oakland City Council Chamber. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland City Councilmembers are offering up changes to Mayor Sheng Thao’s proposed budget—but not big changes.

The proposal Thao introduced last month is shaped by a historic $360 million deficit in the city’s general fund. To cancel out the deficit without laying off city workers, Thao wants to freeze hundreds of vacant positions and reduce spending across city departments. Under Thao’s proposed budget, residents could face longer wait times for some emergency services, see less money for arts and cultural events, and find it harder to obtain help from violence interrupters and life coaches.

On Monday, Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas and her budget team released their proposed changes to Thao’s proposed $4.2 billion budget for 2023-2025. Bas’ amendments take some of the sting out of Thao’s cuts, but they don’t reverse them. With Bas’ amendments, the budget would restore some funding for the Department of Violence Prevention, cultural affairs grants, and add community ambassadors to business corridors. 

Bas came up with these proposed changes with councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan, Carroll Fife, and Kevin Jenkins. Four other councilmembers—Noel Gallo, Dan Kalb, Janani Ramachandran, and Treva Reid—introduced their own separate amendments. 

The way the city’s budget process typically works is that the mayor introduces a draft budget in May. In June, the councilmembers have the opportunity to propose amendments to the mayor’s plan. The City Council president usually leads a group of councilmembers in presenting a plan, but this can include no more than four of them because of the Brown Act, which states that a majority of the council cannot meet or discuss anything in private. The rest of the council is free to offer up amendments of their own, individually, or as a competing bloc. But in the end, a majority of the council must reach an agreement and pass a balanced budget before July 1.

So far, there’s been little public debate among the councilmembers about budget priorities. Thao has emphasized the need for unity to address the deficit, going so far as to call her budget “One Oakland.” Bas has played a key role in uplifting this message. 

“This is different from the last two budget cycles in that the mayor and the council president are working very collaboratively together on this budget,” Bas told The Oaklandside.

After Bas issued her budget plan today, Thao thanked the council president’s team for putting forward “thoughtful proposals.”

“These proposed amendments reflect our shared values as well as the input of the community, Council, our City departments, and my office,” Thao said. 

Winners and losers in changes sought by Bas and company

A woman in a blue suit speaks before a lectern. Behind her stand nine men and women dressed in suits and uniforms. Behind them is a fire truck.
Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas joining other officials in announcing a major federal grant for the fire department on June 8, 2023. Credit: Eli Wolfe

The biggest winner under Bas’ version of the budget is the Oakland Fire Department. City officials announced last week that thanks to a federal grant, the department won’t have to temporarily suspend one of its engines on a rotating basis. This grant doesn’t require matching funds, so this is free money for the city.

Bas also scrounged some additional funding for the Department of Violence Prevention, which is charged with disrupting cycles of violence and trauma. The Council President wants to give the department an additional $2.1 million to fund its grants. Bas also proposes freezing a City Council budget and policy analyst position to free up $300,000 for the DVP’s work on sex trafficking. 

Bas wants to use $8.8 million in unspent money in some existing city funds to create a Rapid Response Homeless Housing Acquisition Fund, which would be used to develop housing for homeless residents. 

Bas also wants to restore some funds for the Cultural Affairs division, which many residents were outraged to see losing money under Thao’s budget.

Here are some of the other investments Bas’ team wants to make in the budget:

  • $2 million over two years for community ambassadors in business corridors
  • $100,000 per year per council district  for traffic safety improvements and $200,000 total for traffic safety around Lake Merritt
  • Unfreeze the stalled hiring of two civilian police investigators
  • Hire HR staff to fill vacant positions in the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) program, which dispatches civilians to respond to some non-emergency 911 calls. Also dedicate a MACRO team to Oakland libraries
  • Unfreeze the hiring of an analyst position in the Office of the Inspector General, which serves as a civilian watchdog over OPD
  • Allocate $100,000 for an OPD staffing study
  • Add $1 million per year for tenant legal services
  • Set aside funds to study sites for homeless housing
  • Increase Cultural Affairs grants by $300,000 each year and unfreeze several positions that oversee events and programs
  • Allocate $93,750 to each councilmember to fund community grants
  • Provide $100,000 per year to Oakland Public Library to purchase canopies, tables, chairs, and other amenities for outdoor events
  • Invest $500,000 per year in the Saba Grocers Food Card Program and $300,000 per year in SOS Meals on Wheels for seniors  
  • Restore $43,200 to Fairyland’s contract with the city and $40,000 to the Oakland Asian Cultural Center
  • Unfreeze a program manager position in the Public Ethics Commission and provide some discretionary funds to help implement the “Democracy Dollars” campaign finance overhaul

Bas found this additional money through the federal grant for OFD and some existing balances in city accounts. The city also projects that it will bring in an extra $3 million thanks to high bids for the Raiders’ old training facility and an additional $2 million due to smaller-than-expected debt payments to the Coliseum Joint Powers Authority. Traffic safety expenses will be paid for in part with Lake Merritt parking revenue.  

Thinking ahead about Oakland’s pressing problems

Bas and her team also published strategies for how the city should invest in affordable housing, public safety, and effective government.

Bas wants the City Administrator’s office to coordinate better with county, state, and federal partners on permanently housing homeless residents. 

Bas is also concerned with staffing, particularly in OPD. Under Thao’s budget, the department would stay about the same size but lose a chunk of its overtime budget. Her policy memo calls for the Inspector General to analyze OPD’s staffing and resources so the city can better determine where to deploy officers for maximum impact. 

Bas also wants an update on the city’s efforts to hire in revenue-generating departments, including Public Works, Housing and Community Development, and Planning and Building.

Her memo notes that Oakland officials need to come up with long-term solutions to the city’s structural financial problems. For instance, Oakland has recently experienced serious shortfalls in revenue from taxes on property sales and hotel guests, due in large part to the pandemic. 

With that in mind, Bas wants the city to craft an economic development strategy to increase its tax base. She also wants the city to create a ballot measure to replace Measure Z, which funds many public safety initiatives and is expiring in 2024. She also recommends that Oakland cultivate private partnerships to fund critical civic programs—a big priority in Libby Schaaf’s administration. 

Other councilmembers share their own visions for a final, balanced budget

Councilmembers Janani Ramachandran, Dan Kalb, Noel Gallo, and Treva Reid also published their own amendments on Monday. They share many of the same priorities as Council President Bas and her team, but there are areas where they could clash.

Reid wants to sustain the Department of Violence Prevention’s current contracts with service providers. Thao’s budget would make  significant cuts to many of its nonprofit contracts—a proposal that has prompted furious protests at City Hall. 

Reid also emphasized the need for several public safety programs and resources in District 7, including dedicated foot patrols and traffic calming measures. Reid wants the city to roll over $150,000 she helped secure in the last budget cycle for security cameras in East Oakland commercial corridors and to expand the city’s illegal dumping enforcement surveillance cameras program. 

Ramachandran’s memo outlines a handful of “pragmatic and narrow” amendments to strengthen public safety measures. Shen wants to fund community safety ambassadors for East Oakland business corridors in several districts. She also wants to fund a grant writer for OPD to find new funds for crime prevention and investigation. 

Ramachandran opposes the mayor’s plan to combine Housing and Community Development with Oakland’s Homelessness Services. She said the council hasn’t been given a study that explains how this change would save money and better serve residents. Ramachandran appears to be the only councilmember who has protested the merger, although Noel Gallo has also expressed skepticism about the mergers during council meetings. 

Kalb, who has been under intense pressure from his constituents to address public safety concerns, proposes unfreezing 10 vacant OPD positions that are slated to be frozen in Thao’s budget. He wants to prioritize hiring 911 dispatchers and funding at least one lateral police academy. 

Kalb recommends funding the Democracy Dollars initiative for the 2024 election, but only to cover the At-Large City Council seat. The initiative, which was passed by voters last year, would give residents small sums of money in the form of vouchers to spend on local political campaigns in an effort to level the playing field in elections. The so-called “Democracy Dollars” were originally supposed to be available for 10 elections in 2024, including five City Council seats, four school board seats, and City Attorney. Kalb also wants to increase funding for deep cleanings and trash collection at homeless encampments and fund more safe parking sites. He also recommends that senior centers receive enough funds to avoid “significant cuts” to programming budgets.

Gallo wants funding to support a police unit that targets sideshows, a motorcycle squadron, and walking patrols. He’s also calling for the city to partner with Alameda County to expand mental and behavioral services for youth and young adults. Gallo wants to sustain funding for Oakland’s Head Start programs and restore summer jobs programs for youth. Gallo also calls for investment in several city parks and recreation centers, including Curt Flood Field and Cesar Chavez Park. He recommends increased funding to support homeless outreach, and money for a study on how to remove barriers that prevent commercial use properties from transitioning into residential units.

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,, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.