Friends of the ACORN,
After the 4-0 vote of the City Council Finance Committee to move the Oakland ID card to the full City Council with the probability of a local currency function intact, Council Member Jean Quan said that if she becomes Mayor of Oakland, she will enjoy negotiating with the City unions. I presume that that means negotiating their acceptance of local currency as partial compensation for their labor; thus ‘saving’ the City upwards of $30 million, potentially. Council Member Quan’s statement was the clearest statement that I have heard in the more than two years of struggle of the Coalition that we are being clearly heard in regards to the benefits of this program!
The full Council will hear the matter at its meeting on November 9 at City Hall; the meeting starts at 7 p.m. THIS WILL TRULY BE A HISTORIC DAY FOR OAKLAND! Five votes of the full Council will be needed to pass this and the Coalition has a commitment of support from Council Member Rebecca Kaplan and more than hope that Council President Jane Bruner and/or Council Member Desley Brooks will also support the proposal.
However, before we celebrate, you are needed to put the Cherry on Top! It is absolutely necessary that this local currency have a governance body that will yoke the program to the mission and the broad distribution of benefits that are possible. Without such a governance body the project will very likely go astray and visit more problems on some in the City than they already have. That is why it is critically important that YOU turn out and that you inform all your networks that care about Oakland to turn out. We will be calling for the Council’s explicit direction to staff to create this governance body that will make its decisions on the basis of a modified consensus process. Modified consensus is needed because it fully empowers the minority participants in the process as a posed to a manipulable voting process.
There are many details and a implementation schedule that must be worked out with the chosen vendor. The vendor’s motivation is its profit bottom-line; the Council and City staff are – understandably – not sufficiently knowledgeable of the subject matter or the industry to properly monitor and govern this project. Representatives of cardholders, merchants, privacy rights attorneys, the Coalition, other civil society organizations, non-directly-involved card industry persons, and business and economics’s academicians must be on this governance body. Please come and help us secure this necessary feature for the Oakland ACORN.
Please, please, please! Mark your calendars NOW! I have attached a new document [Ed: see below] – from Oakland C.A.N., a member orgainization of the Coalition – that explains some of the questions that have come it. Please come and feel free to testify about any aspect of the program that you think is important. I realize that many of us are heavily involved in the election and in the response to the Mehserle sentencing but do NOT take a break after those events. I welcome emails and telephone calls to help coordinate our efforts.
Looking forward to seeing you on November 9.
Wilson Riles, 510-530-2448
OCCIC Follow-Up with Answers
- Considering the level of City government involvement in this program, how can private citizens, City staff, or local merchants trust this project to do what is intended?
Answer – No one should trust the City given its history with a much less than ideal performance in the delivery of equality and justice to all residents and participants in Oakland’s community. The local currency or ACORN concept did not originate from the City; that is one of the reasons that it has been more than two years of frustration on the part of the Coalition in bringing it about. The City’s authorization of a public municipal identification card, however, is critical to including and protecting our undocumented neighbors at a very oppressive moment in history.
The Coalition recognized early on that the accomplishment of that aim does require a much broader rate of participation than exists in New Haven, Conn., with their Elm City Card or the rate of participation in San Francisco with their identification card. Those cards have become ‘badges’ of stigmatization. The Coalition’s system design includes benefits for all members of the community in Oakland.
This design includes the necessity of a independent governing body to oversee and audit the system to maintain the mission and benefits of the program to all stakeholders. We have designed it to include the participation of cardholders, merchant representatives, privacy rights attorneys, business and economics academicians, and community civil society representatives. It is critical that this body makes its decisions on the basis of a modified consensus process so that the concerns and needs of the smallest minorities or sectors are heard, responded to, and protected. It is this body in which the Coalition is putting its trust.
- What is the difference between a merchant’s benefit program and local currency?
. Answer – The merchant benefit program focuses on “units of value” such as discounts, points, promotions, etc to encourage and motivate consumers to shop at or do business with a particular merchant or merchants. The “units of value” may be applied by the consumer to get merchandise and services at a lower price, up to and including no cost in $US dollars although the consumers’ “units of value” are expended. These units of value typically do not have any public currency value and are not defined as “legal tender for any and all debts.”
. Local currency is a more generally usable “value unit” that functions similar to a currency in that the recipients/merchants and others who accept the units can then ‘turn around’ and themselves use the units to pay for labor and services within a limited jurisdiction. Merchandise and services are priced individually – and separately from $US dollar pricing – in local currency units and would have to be discounted as a separate action from the use of the currency itself. With the ACORN, Alternative Currency for Oakland Residents and Neighbors, by a participation agreement merchants, the City, and other goods and service providers would agree to discount purchases in ACORNs below the $US dollar exchange value.
- Is there a difference between a program like SF’s where the benefit comes from flashing a card and where the benefit is programmed on the card?
Answer – The difference with programming is that the benefit can be more easily and consistently managed across a large population. Program rules and guidelines can be electronically monitored by the host financial institution and changes can be quickly implemented in order to keep the program relevant and fresh. Program performance and merchant/cardholder data is easily collected with a high degree of accuracy and with the security protections provided by the Banking Privacy Act. With flashing a card, the program is dependent on the merchant or that merchants’ clerk to give the benefits as defined. Monitoring is very difficult. The Program’s performance and merchant/cardholder satisfaction data is more difficult to collect.
- The Coalition believes that some functions/benefits will have to be phased in but that all wanted functions must be designed for in the beginning. Is this accurate?
. Answer – This is important because it allows the program to deliver benefits immediately based on the complexity of implementing the benefit. For example, the design and implementation of the ID card with basic financial functionality would be much quicker than waiting until the more complex economic and local currency benefits are structured and agreed to by the other necessary participants.
- How important is the broad marketing of the ID card to the success of the program for everyone?
. Answer – The vendor must be not only committed to marketing and promoting the local currency (community benefits) components, but must also view these as being critical to the success of the program. Every stakeholder, especially the vendor and the City, must have their benefit (return) and participation yoked to the maximum accomplishment of the mission for the Oakland ACORN project. In order to achieve some of the key program goals of self-funding and not stigmatizing the undocumented, the program needs to sign up a very broad base of people. In addition, the local currency/economic components bring value to the City’s budget and stabilize Oakland’s microeconomics. Participating merchants gain increasing consumer traffic and by stimulating more economic activity within the city boundaries more local residents will be hired. It is to every bodies benefit to market this program to all sectors of the community.
- Is there any detriment to functions initiated early when the local currency function is ‘brought on-line’ in a latter phase?
. Answer – The key is to establish the infrastructure for the local currency as part of the system implementation. That way only the local currency definition and rules will need to be added when ready. The analogy is laying the foundation of a building. If you want a building to ultimately be 5 stories tall, you lay a foundation for all 5 stories. You can build 3 stories first and add two more later. Not only will only no functions be lost, but you gain the benefit of having the infrastructure in place and working smoothly with some number of cardholders already in place and ready to use the local currency.
- OCCIC feels that being able to issue cards to residents who have no documentation at all is important. Can you suggest some ways that the City might consider doing this?
. Answer – One idea might be to require two pieces of mail (bills, medical, etc.) with the applicant‘s name on it for the address they are using, and, accept the verification by a second person that knows them and we verify the second person’s ID (name, address, SSN/DL, place of employment). The system should keep a record of the second person that verified the applicant. This was the initial problem to be addressed by this project but this will require the City to change its verification ordinance.
- OCCIC also believes that all use fees should be at or below industry standards. Can you comment on this?
. Answer – The vendor should be willing to accept a low margin. This will motivate the vendor to market the card to make money on volume, not high fees. This is also important to make sure people that need an ID card are not taken advantage of from a pricing standpoint. It will also be another incentive to attract merchant participation.
- Please, clarify the vendor’s use of non-profits, community organizations, and commercial property for intake sites. How can such facilities add to the success of the program?
. Answer – The vendor should partner with and utilize participating non-profits’ communications networks to promote the program not only to their constituents but to the community as a whole. Intake points should be located at these organization’s sites as appropriate and needed, on a temporary/roaming or permanent basis, and fully compensated. Also, most importantly, the local currency function can generate significant contributions to all Oakland non-profits. Contributions made in local currency will be treated by the IRS and the State Board of Equalization in the same manner as contributions in $US dollars; income and transactions in local currency are also taxable in the same way as the $US dollar at the exchange rate. The vendor may also utilize commercial locations as appropriate and needed.
- We understand that the vendor may have a relationship with a merchant processor company. What is the advantage to the program for working with this merchant processor and their technology (load points, etc.)?
. Answer – The advantage is the merchant processor can provide custom POS and/or card swipe at little or no cost. The merchant processor will provide all of the programming needed to customize the POS and card swipe terminals. These POS mechanisms can be substituted in a matter of literally minutes with no down time for the merchant or loss of present capabilities. One vendor’s partner merchant processor has also agreed to make a charitable donation to non-profits in Oakland or to the project of 25% of the net revenue they receive.
- Will Visa/MasterCard allow local currency on their network in Oakland?
. Answer – The local currency function can be programmed on a Closed Loop network. Visa allows a split transaction. That is, you can pay for something partially with dollars (this would be on the Open Loop Visa/Star network) and pay the balance using a different method such as cash or local currency.
- There is often confusion about closed loop and open loop. Can a closed loop system be achieved with digital programming or do closed loop systems require special POS mechanisms?
. Answer – The programming way is to recognize participating merchants in the program in software by their merchant code, and apply program features and benefits based on their code. The code is registered in the system each time a merchant signs up. All cardholders will automatically be a part of the program. This is the lowest cost method. Requiring a merchant to change a POS terminal as required by a ‘mechanical’ Closed Loop system can be very challenging. For merchants such as restaurants, many POS terminals are also the restaurant’s management system. The cost of changing would be high if they swapped it out, or had to reprogram their in-store system.
- Can card holders exchange $US dollars to ACORNs automatically by phone and computer? Does not Visa allow foreign currencies already on their systems?
. Answer – The issue here is not Visa, but the host financial institution. Visa offers foreign exchange service for transactions on their network. However, the ‘purchase’ of ACORNS could probably be treated the same as the purchase of points in a Rewards program. This would make it a purchase versus a currency conversion and Visa would not be involved. For it to be treated as a currency conversion, the host banking system would have to recognize it as a currency. This may not be an issue for the program, especially if – with the help of the City – the vendor was able to gain the involvement of local Community Development banks and/or local credit unions. Credit unions are encouraged to reach out to the undocumented and the Bank on Oakland program’s mission is to facilitate the un-banked into the use of financial accounts.