Friday, September 28, 2012

A simple commitment to respect the will of the people.

Jim Dexter asked me to make clear that I support the voter's intent when passing the various measures such as Q and Y in my drive for budget reform.

I told him that he was just asking me to put myself on record for something he knew full well I considered an ethical value.  For me this basic respect for the public's will went without saying, but I had made the political mistake of not having said it.  

He also told me that he would support me if I would make this public statement.  I think he already does.  Truth be told, we are of like mind on quite a number of things.  

When the public has made a choice as clear and legally clean as Measure Q to support our libraries (for example) it has become the marching orders of every public servant, elected or otherwise. To not follow those marching orders is a breach of public trust.

So what is the problem? 
The measures were voted on, they are law, and the provisions in those measures are guiding how those funds are being spent. Right?

There are many aspects of Measure Y and Measure Q that are not being followed.
In all the time I have been working on community policing, I have never heard of the required number of Problem Solving Officers that Measure Y requires being assigned.  Maybe I missed something.  Are all those fire stations open? Guess I messed a lot. 

And are our libraries open 6 days a week as per Measure Q?  Not the one in my area and not the one where my girlfriend works.  What others are open 6 days other than the main branch?  Who said that not fulfilling that 6 day requirement is OK?  Our City Attorney?

Part of the reason we need to go through this convoluted measure process is because the voters do not trust the politicians to really spend the funds as they promised.  It looks to me like we cannot trust city spending to be in line with the clear legal language of ballot measures either. Talk about a vicious circle of distrust! 

When residents tell me that they would gladly spend more in taxes if they felt it would really go to what was intended, this is what they mean by it not happening.

One could move on to other measures and one could go on and on about this.

If elected to council, I will consider going on and on about ballot measure compliance part of my job.

I will need the public’s help to keep an eye on it all.   
And thank you Jim for reminding me to point out the obvious. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

What would a better budget look like?

What would a better budget look like?
In truth, I do not know because a better budget will be the result of political compromise. 
The first thing we need for a better budget in Oakland is some chance of stability. 
To get that stability, we need serious, stable public support.
We need more than a squeak-by majority behind it. 
·         4 unpopular members of council and a deal with the mayor is not public support for a budget. 
·         A budget report that does not show the full amount of all the public debts and pension obligations, does not develop public trust.  
·         Manipulating the public and threatening to close 14 of 18 libraries and having our council meet in two closed door groups of four is not a budget process that we should be proud of. 
·         Dropping 80 police officers to get a compromise on pensions is not good relations with our public employees.  
This list could go on and on citing examples from almost all of the public departments and all kinds of disappointment with our elected official.  I’ll stop here with a question:  Do you think the public at large trusts the way our public officials are managing our public finances?  
All of these events are very hard on our public employees, many of whom have their jobs threatened every two years or less and word day to day in an atmosphere of hand to mouth, crisis to crisis thinking on the part of a management who gets little more than two years of planning offered to them.   
Jane Brunner, who is leaving the job that I want, (Council Member District 1) told the Piedmont Avenue Neighborhood Improvement League that this last budget was really a great step forward.  She felt that for the first time they were getting some kind of real information and numbers from city staff.  Jane has held this seat for 16 years or something like that.  I feel that if she feels that we have had too little information for the past fourteen years on our budget, then the budget process is more flawed than it looks and it looks bad.
What I see as a process leading to a better budget would be public approval, by a wide majority, of that new budget process in a referendum.  I would submit any reformed budget to the people for a vote.  Maybe what we need is some kind of budget convention, sort of like a charter convention or constitutional convention and then require that it pass with the same majority needed to authorize taxes.  If we are going to transform prior tax measures, we will need that majority to be legal.  
So given that, here are some ideas I would like to see discussed and addressed in a total budget review.
To start with, we need to raise taxes in a fairer and more predictable way.  I do not like the endless fees and the over complicated measures authorizing parcel taxes.  We could drop the parcel taxes and reform our business taxes, sales taxes and service fees in a way that cover’s our real costs.  I am open to all of it as long as it is fair, keeps residents in their homes and lets local business, especially small business, survive securely.  In a separate posting, I will stick my neck out and propose a different business tax.  My basic principal is that people making money should pay taxes accordingly and people who are not making money here should have some kind of security.  
Measures Y, Q and others like them need to be brought back into the fold as part of basic way we do business.  I believe in the dedicated funding commitments to community policing and our libraries, but not by this process.  A guaranteed percentage of general fund spending would probably be better.  A non-rider rule would also help so that such things as community policing would not be stuck paying 4 million dollars to the fire department (this is the current Measure Y).  
I have no idea why we do not spend our money AFTER we raise it.  What if we spent in 2012 based on what we took in during 2011 instead of what we hope to take in during 2013?  Somehow I fear that I am in danger of being taken to the border and expelled from the United States for saying such a thing, but it would make planning a “hecka” easier.  
And how about the business cycle?  It happens.  Capitalism is the system we live under in this country.  We have been having big downturns on a regular basis since well before the panic of 1893 and they should not be a cause for us to be unprepared or panic in 2012.  I make some jokes during forums that it is sad that the Green Party, the one party that puts people before profit, is the one brining up this very basic fact about our economy.  It is sad and a bit odd.  The “rainy day fund” that some discuss and a few have implemented can be the way we do this.   The definition of the growth/recession can be fixed to performance markers and the transition from good times to bad times, and the release of “rainy day” funds can be set by a pre determined formula at the beginning of each spending year.  
 During periods of high growth and heavier investment and more real-estate transactions is when we should NOT spend on upgrading our buildings, purchasing new resources, special public works or big projects.  During those times we should restrict government to basic services.  We can learn from recent history and never ever allow any of the real-estate transfer taxes to anything but the rainy day fund.  In good times, we should keep our libraries, parks, civic centers, programs running, pay our debts, and put sidewalk expansion, paving roads, development projects and such on hold.   
And we should spend when times are bad.  That is when those public projects will cost the least to do and when an injection of shorter term public jobs would do the most good.  It is also when it is least expensive to borrow money.  
I see it as an economic shock absorber.  Sort of a rainy day fund with a works project administration ready to start up on those rainy days.  
Now we can, and I will, work on these points one by one and see what kind of improvements we can get piece by piece.  That is the way we work on such issues now and the result is usually incomplete reforms that do not accomplish much but make day to day government even more complicated and paralyzed.
So I will also advocate that Budget Convention to give us a chance to work on a new budget and new budget process taking the big picture into account.
The alternative is to continue the current budget and budget process with our next budget crisis on schedule for 2013.  
Or?  Are there some other proposals?