Oakland Looks At Taxing Pot To Close Budget Gap

Oakland, Calif., is laying off police officers to cope with a spiraling budget crisis. The cuts come as Oakland is wrestling with lingering racial unrest over the death of a young black man shot by a transit police officer. Money is the only solution to the city's budget problems, and some of it may come from a new proposal to tax marijuana.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

It's been a rough month for the city of Oakland, California. Just last week, demonstrators filled the streets and looted some stores. They were angry that a white transit policeman who fatally shot an unarmed black man was convicted of manslaughter, not murder.

(Soundbite of protest)

NORRIS: Now this week, some of the Oakland police officers who tried to control those angry crowds have been laid off. They're victims of a city budget squeeze.

And as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, it may lead Oakland to raise cash in a most unusual way.

RICHARD GONZALES: Like many cities in America, Oakland's coffers are empty and there's no sign of immediate relief. The city has slashed $140 million from its budget in the past three years. And it still faces an almost $31 million deficit this year. Things are so bad that last night the city laid off 80 police officers, close to 10 percent of the force.

Ms. JANE BRUNNER (President, Oakland City Council): I've said all along, we don't want to lose these police officers. But we also can't afford them.

GONZALES: Jane Brunner, Oakland's city council president, says police and firefighters make up 85 percent of the general fund.

Ms. BRUNNER: So even if we had closed all the senior centers, all the libraries, all the park and rec programs, and city hall, we would not have covered the 30.5 million. We'd still be cutting - laying off some police officers.

GONZALES: The layoffs are a bitter pill for an already short-staffed force that polices one of the most dangerous cities in the country. So dangerous that last year, four officers were slain in the line of duty in one day.

Sergeant Dom Arotzarena is a police union president.

Sergeant DOM AROTZARENA (President, Oakland Police Officers' Association): Losing four officers last year was a shock to us all and we haven't really recovered from that yet. And now we're losing another 80 officers this year, not by the hand of a gun, but by the hand of a pen.

GONZALES: The city plans to put a targeted tax increase on the November ballot. But some city leaders are looking at another revenue source: marijuana. Oakland already licenses and taxes four medical marijuana dispensaries. Last night the council's public safety committee approved a proposal to go one step further. Oakland could become the first city in the nation to license four large-scale commercial medical marijuana growing operations.

Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan.

Ms. REBECCA KAPLAN (Councilwoman, Oakland City): Creating a regular, responsible, regulated permitting system to enable the creation and regulation of these industrial facilities is an important step in terms of public safety, providing jobs and revenue.

GONZALES: Supporters of the plan say the city could rake in about $38 million from the pot growing centers. Oddly enough, that's about what it would take to keep the laid off officers on the job.

But Councilman Larry Reid, who supports the plan, says one shouldn't read too much into the timing of the proposed pot tax.

Mr. LARRY REID (Councilman, Oakland City): I think it's just a weird coincidence. The voters of this city voted last year to allow us to tax the four dispensaries in our city that are operating. And they are generating almost a million dollars of new revenue that we didn't have. And certainly any new additional revenue certainly will enhance our ability to survive in this economy.

GONZALES: The proposal to license medical marijuana cultivation centers still requires approval of the full city council.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oakland.

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