Homelessness, housing, and public safety are Oakland city councilmembers’ top priorities for the 2021-23 budget, the topic of a council retreat that took place Tuesday.

Those priorities are at least partially consistent with what Oakland residents see as the city’s most pressing needs, based on a recent survey by FM3 Research, an opinion research and strategy firm.

But the mayor and City Council face an expected deficit in the 2021-23 budget even with $192 million coming from the federal American Rescue Plan. Despite that, council President Nikki Fortunato Bas hopes to position Oakland to thrive, not just survive.

“It’s not enough to go back to where we were,” Bas said, referring to pre-pandemic times when even then many in Oakland were hurting.

She thinks the council can position the city for a strong economic recovery and she has at least one idea to help do that.

Bas’ idea is a progressive business tax, which could raise tens of millions of dollars by applying a higher tax rate on larger businesses.

Currently, Oakland’s business tax rate is flat, which means mom-and-pop businesses pay the same tax rate as Whole Foods Market, which is owned by online retail giant Amazon. Under a progressive tax, Whole Foods would pay more tax on each dollar of sales than smaller stores would.

The progressive tax legislation went before the council last year and fell one vote short of passing. She hopes it will get through the council this time and make it on the 2022 ballot.

“I think it will make a huge difference in terms of providing a stronger revenue base,” she said.

Hoping to avoid service cuts

Councilmembers didn’t discuss what services, if any, may be cut because of the deficit. But adding revenue may alleviate the need to cut services.

Councilmembers are also looking at how they might reallocate money from police to other services, Bas said.

Of the $192 million expected from the American Rescue Plan, $57 million will be used to cover a current budget shortfall with the balance going to the 2021-23 budget.

The process to create a balanced 2021-23 budget started Tuesday and must be approved in June.

Aside from the council, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf identified her priorities for the 2021-23 budget, which she defined as holistic community safety, a responsive, trustworthy government and among other things, housing, economic and cultural security.

The mayor did not get more specific in the document she provided to the Oakland Finance Department.

In the survey by FM3 Research, 50 percent of Oakland residents said housing and homelessness are the top issues they would like elected officials to address in the upcoming budget.

Thirty-six percent said cutting the police budget should be the first or second step to easing the city’s budget deficit, while 58 percent said someone other than police should respond to mental health crises that are not violent.

Keith Burbank is currently a fulltime reporter covering Alameda County and Oakland news for Bay City News. He has also worked on the Data Points project for Local News Matters, finding trends and stories about the region through data. In 2019, he was a California Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, producing a series about homeless deaths in Santa Clara County. He worked as a swing shift editor for the newswire for several years as well. Outside of journalism, Keith enjoys computer programming, math, economics and music.