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Stirrings of an Oakland Tax Revolt Could Hamper Parks Maintenance

Councilmembers hope to create a more dependable source of parks funding. But polling suggests that voters may no longer trust the city on taxes.

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Oakland's 140 city parks and public spaces need sprucing up. Overflowing trash cans, illegal dumping, and unsightly bare patches of grass and gopher holes litter the landscape of some parks. To supplement a diminishing amount of funding for its city parks, Oakland officials are proposing a parcel tax on the March ballot. But some Oakland councilmembers believe voters will be cool to another bid by City Hall to raise taxes amid the controversy over the efficacy of last year's Measure AA and after rising anger among property owners over the recently approved Measure W vacant lot property tax.

Councilmember Larry Reid, who has represented East Oakland for more than two decades, acknowledged the importance of well-maintained city parks. But he said residents in his district will likely find little value in paying a parcel tax of up to $98 a year for parks they don't find safe enough to use today.

"The folks in my district can't use the parks," Reid said last week during a hearing of the city council's Public Works Committee. "They just can't. At Willie Wilkins Park on 98th Avenue, the families that want to use the park can't, because the homeboys are playing soccer and drinking their 40 ounces.

"The folks in my district ain't going to go for this ballot measure," Reid said, with exasperated locution. "There's nothing for them. If you're talking about making the parks safe, they're going to say, 'Are you going to give me an officer who's going to sit there everyday, all day?' Nah."

Oakland's existing funding source for the maintenance of city parks has long been deficient. A portion of Oaklanders' property taxes goes to the city's Landscape and Lighting Assessment District, which funds park maintenance. But the district, which was created in 1989 and generates $20 million annually, has a flaw. Unlike similar tax mechanisms, it does not increase with inflation, which means that $20 million ain't what it used to be. Taking inflation into account, the district's revenues should be roughly $40 million a year, according to Angela Robinson Piñon of the city's Public Works Department. The difference leaves the city with an ever-growing funding gap for maintaining city parks.

"It's long overdue to, in effect, create a cost-of-living assessment so we can do what we promise the public we should be doing," Councilmember Dan Kalb said. He also hopes the proposed measure will include a portion of its proceeds to help improve stormwater drainage, including flooding and litter in creeks. Doing so is mandated by the local water quality control board, Kalb noted, but a funding source has not been identified.

Meanwhile, the controversy over the outcome of Measure AA, the early education parcel tax that came before Oakland voters last November, appears to be having a corrosive effect on future ballot measures. The question of whether Measure AA was successful at the ballot is currently in the hands of the courts. The measure garnered support from 62 percent of Oakland voters last year, but voters believed the threshold for approval of the tax to be 67 percent, meaning it failed. But after the election, the city administration, which strongly backed Measure AA, cited a lawsuit in San Francisco that contends that citizen-led initiatives require just a simple majority of votes for passage. Earlier this year, the city council agreed to hold off from collecting the $198-per-house Measure AA parcel tax, for now, until this legal uncertainty is resolved.

"You've got this Measure AA and people don't trust the city," Reid said. Similar sentiment was voiced by Councilmember Noel Gallo of the Fruitvale District. "The neighbors in my area still raising concerns about what we're doing with that," Gallo added.

Evidence suggests that the optics of a perceived bait-and-switch by the city over Measure AA is beginning to poison the electorate's support for future tax measures. Polling conducted recently for the city parks parcel tax revealed potential "vulnerabilities" down the line because of the uncertainty with Measure AA. The survey found the proposed parcel tax failing to attain the two-thirds majority required for passage. The price tag of the parcel tax was not much of a factor in the results, said Emily Goodman, a pollster with EMC Research. Two amounts were tested: A $68 a year parcel tax that would generate $9 million annually, and $98 a year tax that would raise $14 million for city parks. Goodman said there was no discernible difference in support for either amount.

The poll also revealed that Oakland's right track/wrong track numbers are underwater, revealing another level of voter satisfaction with its city government. Forty-four percent of likely primary voters in Oakland reportedly believe the city is heading in the wrong direction, Goodman said, and 38 percent feel it's going in the right direction.

Further weighing on the minds of some voters, primarily property owners, is anxiety over Oakland's soon-to-be-implemented tax on vacant properties. Measure W was approved by voters last November with 70 percent support. But confusion over how the city will implement the measure, which could hit property owners with an annual $6,000 tax bill per vacant lot, roused constituents to arrive in droves for a Finance and Management Committee hearing last month. "People came out of the hills that normally don't come out to council meetings and they are upset and incensed," Reid said.

He later declared that he will not support putting the parcel tax for city parks on the March primary ballot after a representative from Council President Rebecca Kaplan's office requested additional polling for the parcel tax to include questions about funding for the homeless.

Reid questioned the wisdom of asking voters to fund solutions for homelessness when voters were told last November that proceeds from Measure W would be earmarked for the same problem. "Now you're going to ask the voters again?" an incredulous Reid asked. "I just think it's a big mistake. Because if you're going to include homelessness in this ballot initiative and we haven't addressed the problem, it ain't going to pass."

How discussion of the proposed parcel tax plays out within the potential voter distaste for new tax measures is unclear, but councilmembers hope to fine-tune the tax proposal and then conduct additional polling to test how the modified measure plays with potential voters. The Dec. 6 deadline for filing any ballot measure for inclusion on the March primary ballot is looming. 

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