Oakland Leaders Want Higher Taxes — Not Real Reform 

Politicians will ask voters to increase their property taxes by $555 a year, but won't offer substantive changes to unsustainable government spending.

In the past few years, it's become apparent that Oakland government spending — both in the city and at the school district — is unsustainable. The city simply can't afford the generous salaries, benefits, and pensions it has awarded to public employees during the past decade. And the school district can't afford to pay its teachers a more competitive wage because it has far too many schools.

Oakland, in short, desperately needs real government-spending reform. Yet local political leaders appear to be unwilling to deal head-on with these hard truths. Instead, both the city council and the school board decided last week to maintain the status quo and will ask residents this fall to raise their property taxes by $555 a year.

The city council voted 5-3 to place a $360 parcel tax on the November ballot, and the school board voted 7-1 for its $195 parcel tax, the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The city parcel tax measure was the result of a so-called "compromise deal" between councilmembers and the Oakland cops' union. Under the agreement, which still needs approval from the police union rank and file, cops would begin paying 9 percent of their pensions — like other city employee unions do — over the next three years in exchange for a no-layoff guarantee during the same time frame. The measure also would raise about $50 million in revenues a year and allow the city to rehire the eighty cops laid off last month. However, if the measure fails to garner the two-thirds vote needed, then cops will continue to contribute nothing to their pensions.

At this point, the measure's defeat appears inevitable. But it might have been different had the council worked harder with the cops' union and other city unions to scale back Oakland's out-of-control salaries and benefits before coming to voters for another tax increase. It's a no-brainer that the police union should be paying 9 percent to its pension plan. But cops' salaries and benefits — like those of other city employees — are completely out of whack for a city with a poor retail tax base and a battered economy.

Currently, each police officer costs Oakland an eye-popping $188,000 a year in salary and benefits. Police and firefighters also can retire at age fifty with nearly full annual salaries. And when they "retire," many of them take new jobs while they continue to collect their publicly financed pensions.

The truth is if the unions had offered real concessions in exchange for a $1-a-day property tax increase, then the measure might stand a better chance of passing. Instead, voters will be asked to keep paying those unsustainable wages at a time when nearly one in five Oaklanders is out of work, tens of thousands of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, and the foreclosure crisis has crippled entire neighborhoods. Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente vowed to actively campaign against the measure.

Similarly, the school district's parcel tax promises to be a tough sell, too. It would raise about $20 million annually, and 85 percent of it would be used to increase teacher salaries in the school district. But while it's true that Oakland, like other school districts, has endured deep budget cuts from the state in the past two years, its salary problem isn't really about a lack of revenues.

As this newspaper previously reported, Oakland pays its teachers a lower wage because it has many more schools than it needs (see "Oakland Unified Has Too Many Schools," 5/10/10). State data shows the district has the fewest number of students per school in the county, and thus wastes money on extra principals and staff members for each of those unnecessary schools. As a result, the annual average salary of an Oakland public school teacher — about $54,000 — is the lowest in Alameda County and one of the lowest in California.

Closing schools, however, is the electric third rail in Oakland; it's particularly unpopular with parents. So instead of facing the issue squarely, the school board voted to ask residents to tax themselves more. Maybe if voters say no to both measures, Oakland government leaders will finally start making the hard choices needed to curb their overspending habit.

Three-Dot Roundup

The Oakland City Council also voted to put a measure on the November ballot that would levy a 5 percent tax on medical cannabis dispensaries and permitted growing operations. The measure also would tax recreational marijuana at 10 percent should Proposition 19 pass. ... The council also said it wants the four large pot farms slated to open next year to abide by strict environmental standards. ... In addition, the council voted to place a telephone tax on the ballot that would raise about $8 million annually. ... San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed backed off his plan for a November measure that would ask voters to approve a new ballpark for the Oakland A's. Major League Baseball had objected to Reed's proposal and then promised to help finance a future ballot measure should it agree to allow the A's to move to San Jose, the Chronicle reported. ... Higher tolls on the Bay Bridge this summer have resulted in fewer carpools and less traffic as more commuters switch to BART. ... The Tribune reported that the first tower section of the new Bay Bridge was raised into place. ... Three people were ordered to stand trial on felony charges for their roles in the rioting and looting following the Johannes Mehserle verdict. The Chron also reported that Bay Area law enforcement officials will review the errors they made during the protests, including allowing demonstrators to vandalize and loot Oakland stores while police looked on. ... And Reel Video in Berkeley closed after a group of investors purchased its inventory.

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