Yesterday, I got my absentee ballot in the mail. That might not seem so special, except that here in Oakland, everyone is getting an absentee ballot in the mail. This is the first time I can recall a mail-ballot-only municipal election. (There have been, of course, numerous mail-only elections for assessment districts and the like.) With the high and increasing cost of running elections, it’s probably the wave of the future. In fact, while there will be no polling places open, the City has called a special election for July 21st.
As to the subject of the election itself, the City Council called this special election as a last-gasp effort to avoid truly draconian cuts in the Oakland city budget. Even as it is, the City is looking eliminating maintenance for many city parks, cutting back or eliminating a number of city programs, and generally cutting back city services.
Part of this is the City’s own doing (e.g., the failure of the city council to maintain adequate oversight over Mayor Jerry Brown and his city administrator as they spent money the city didn’t really have), but much of it is the result of a “perfect storm” of outside factors. Those factors include the dismal state of the local, state, and national economy (and associated drop in business tax and sales tax revenue), the precipitous drop in the Oakland real estate market, with consequent drop in property tax and transfer tax revenue, the cutbacks in state contributions to local programs (hopefully to be partially offset by federal “stimulus” dollars), and, of course, the long-term impacts of Prop. 13. Added to that is the self-inflicted wound that Oakland voters perpetrated last November by enacting the “Kids First II” measure, Measure OO, which funded non-city kids’ programs at the expense of the city budget.
The four measures on the ballot are the city council’s attempt to reduce the damage from Kids First II and cobble together some additional short-term revenue sources. If these measures fail, even more drastic budget cuts are lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce.
What are the measures? Measure C increases the City’s hotel tax from 11% to 14 % to fund cultural and educations institutions (including the Oakland Museum, Oakland Zoo, and Chabot Science Center), as well as the convention & visitors’ bureau, that are currently funded from the general fund. It requires a 2/3 majority vote to pass. If it fails, those institutions will probably lose their City funding, and some or all of them may be forced to close down.
Measure D would replace the Kids First II measure (Measure OO). That measure dedicated a percentage of total city revenue to kids’ programs. Measure D would change this to a percentage of unrestricted general fund revenues. This makes far more sense, since restricted funds are locked into their uses and essentially are “untouchable”. It requires only a majority vote (as did Measure OO). If Measure D fails, Measure OO would remain in effect and the City would be forced to cut many other services in order to provide the mandated level of funding for (non-city) childrens’ programs. Measure OO was, to put it bluntly, a stupid and poorly-written measure. We shot ourselves in the foot by passing it. We’ll be adding a second bullet hole if we don’t pass Measure D.
Measure F would increase the business tax on medical marijuana sold in the City from $1.20 per $1000 (0.12%) to $18 per $1000 (1.8%). It’s a whopping increase, but the current tax is miniscule. (Compare it to the roughly 10% sales tax on general merchandise!) As a general tax, this would only require majority vote approval. Taxing medical marijuana may not be the best way in the world to gain revenue (a city tax on cigarettes or alcohol would be far better), but it’s one of the few politically acceptable revenue sources that isn’t pre-empted by state or federal law. Again, if this goes down to defeat, there will be even more programs cut from the city budget.
Bottom line — If you don’t mind dealing with humongous potholes in the streets, broken streetlamps that don’t get fixed, closed fire stations, and being put on permanent hold when you call 911, by all means vote these measures down. It’ll be one more step towards reducing government services to the point where government can be “drowned in the bathtub.”
If, on the other hand, you’d like Oakland to be something other than the world’s biggest cesspool, I’d recommend a YES vote on these four measures.
Incidentally, here’s the Oakland League of Women Voters’ recommendations on the ballot measures. Like me, they recommend a YES vote on all four:
Don’t forget, you do need to mail your ballot in so that it’s received on or before July 21st. (Unlike a tax return, just a postmark won’t do the trick.)