OAKLAND — The City Council has asked city staffers to return to them in June with options for potential tax-raising ballot measures to preserve public safety programs and help fill what is now a roughly $31 million deficit.
A majority of council members seemed to favor a ballot measure of some kind Thursday as Oakland's budget crisis grows bleaker, though what form it will take remains unknown.
The city administration had proposed an $18.2 million parcel tax that would cost a single-family homeowner $180 a year as well as a smaller utility users' tax increase that would generate $2.4 million a year.
Oakland must balance its 2010-11 budget before July 1. Councilmember Jean Quan (Montclair-Laurel), head of the council's finance committee, said she wants to poll residents to see what kind of tax they might be willing to support and acknowledged there's likely to be disagreement on the council on whether the city should seek tax measures totaling more than $20 million.
"Where we might disagree will be: Will it cover the whole amount? Will it cover part of the amount?" she said. "I want to see what people are willing to pay for."
Quan made a motion for staffers to bring back different ballot measure options and propose additional budget cuts, while tabling a plan to sell the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center — a move the city estimated could have reduced the deficit by $10 million.
Her motion included accepting recommendations on about $11 million in other adjustments, including transferring money into the general fund, reducing subsidies for city institutions such as the Oakland Zoo and selling some city properties.
The deficit for 2010-11 had been projected at $42.6 million before Thursday's meeting.
Quan's motion passed with five votes, with council members Ignacio De La Fuente (Glenview-Fruitvale), Rebecca Kaplan (at-large) and City Council President Jane Brunner (North Oakland) voting no. Brunner was prepared to move ahead with a plan to put a measure on the November ballot and to give authority to the city administrator to lay off police officers and other personnel if the measure failed.
"We are not good at pulling the trigger," Brunner said. "I think tonight we should make one simple decision: Do we want a ballot initiative or don't we?"
Should voters approve a November parcel tax, the city could help keep its budget balanced by borrowing against future revenue. If it fails, the city would then be forced into dramatic cuts.
Council members across the board said they do not want to cut police officers, but given that police, fire and debt service make up 85 percent of the roughly $400 million general fund, there does not appear to be another choice if a new revenue source is not identified. Firefighters are protected to a degree by a clause in their contract that says anyone covered by the contract hired before July 1, 2009, cannot be laid off.
Quan said she, Brunner and De La Fuente will approach the Oakland Police Officers Association about getting new concessions, particularly on pension payments. That could prove tough after the union already agreed to renegotiate its contract last summer.
"We're going to meet with them soon," said Sgt. Dom Arotzarena, president of the police officers group. "We scheduled a meeting with them to hear what they have to say. That's where we're at."