Think Oakland’s deficit is easy to fix? Use this to do it yourself

Flash 8 required
Pie Chart

After studying a recent New York Times’  interactive that offered readers a way to try different cuts and tax increases to decrease the national budget deficit, Oakland North decided to do the same—but on a smaller scale, focusing only on Oakland. Our interactive gives Oaklanders a way to try grappling with the city’s budget deficit themselves.

To manage what had been a deficit of $32 million for the current 2010-11 fiscal year, Oakland city officials are still implementing changes to break even. With millions of dollars in expenditures, the inability to intermingle city funds, and contracts that essentially keep city officials from making some proposed changes, solving the budget deficit can seem more like trying to pull a hat trick than like balancing a checkbook.

What would you do?  You could lay off police officers, as the city chose to do, despite Police Chief Anthony Batts’ warning that Oakland’s department is already dangerously understaffed.  You could cut spending in city administration and services.  You could shut down a firehouse, or implement rotating closures.   You could increase taxes and revenue sources, or both.   But few of these options are easy or immediately available–some, which we identify in the interactive, require voter approval or are currently prohibited by  contract agreements with the city.

There’s no mention of school funding here, which may look like an oversight, but the Oakland Unified School District’s funds are entirely separate from the city’s.  That means the city does not provide funding for any schools, nor decide where those funds are dispersed.

The city has already begun implementing its cost-cutting measures, slashing the the police force to 637 sworn officers (which includes the officers who will be rehired as a result of the passing of Measure BB, the measure revising Oakland’s parking lot and parcel tax) and paring down city agencies’ and departments’ administrative staff.  So we invite readers to see whether their own choices align with the city’s ideas of how best to navigate a difficult financial situation.

The numbers in the Oakland North Budget Fix come from multiple sources, including City Administrator Dan Lindheim, and are based on the city’s 2010-11 budget, which is in effect now. Because these budgets are always planned in advance, the numbers used in this interactive were set out in June, so some may have changed since then—for example, because they assumed future revenues that haven’t materialized because the ballot measures required to gather them failed in November.  And, importantly, each of these cuts and increases would have its own ripple effects on the city’s economy, well-being, and future budgets.  We hope to try illustrating some of those complications in coming multimedia projects.

*The category “Services” in the chart above includes 2010-2011 budgets for Oakland’s museums, libraries, parks and recreation, human services, public works, community and economic development, the capital improvement program and other non-departmental programs. “Administration” includes offices of the mayor, city council, city administrator, city attorney, city auditor, city clerk, contracting and purchasing, information technology, finance and management, and human resources.


  1. This game is too simplistic to be interesting. You neglect to mention that the 9% pension contribution for police would need to be negotiated. You neglect to mention that pay and benefit cuts are the most effective way to reduce the budget. These would need to be negotiated as well, but that is not impossible. Oakland pay and benefits for many employees is far in excess of the average or what is reasonable (e.g. $70,000 parking meter repair people etc.). This is where the fat should be trimmed.

  2. Guys, this is completely awesome. Do you save the data anywhere? Any plans to make people ideas public? I clicked “share on Twitter” and I think I lost all my suggestions.

  3. fakchek

    This is an interesting tool for identifying outcomes of possible scenarios. But Marleen has a point. Cutting services is really the only way to have any impact on the current deficit. All the proposed tax opportunities require voter support & there’s no election scheduled for 2 years. Even police pension contributions are likely to be phased in over time so the savings would not be immediate.

  4. Evan Wagstaff Post author

    Thank you for trying our budget project! While we attempted to explain the drawbacks of each option, there are certainly some underlying complexities that we didn’t address. Marleen, we’ll be sure to take your suggestion into consideration while tackling the upcoming figures for 2011-2012.

    We hadn’t planned for the functionality to publish your specific fix on social media, but we are trying to utilize event tracking to log which options users are clicking most. The program is not logging clicks at the moment, but we’ll update if and when these features become available.

  5. Alina

    Wow. Thanks for putting this together. Fun lunchtime exercise, although I’m sure that’s not how our new mayor thinks of it.
    One question – are City Services $88M (pie chart) or more like $30M (Services tab)?

  6. Jim Ratliff

    FYI, if you don’t have Flash installed, you can’t even tell that there’s any interactive thing to see (i.e., there’s no message about a missing plug-in, or anything like that).

  7. Samantha Bryson

    Coolest thing ever. Well done, folks.

  8. Evan Wagstaff Post author

    Glad you enjoyed it! I apologize for the confusion between the “services” amounts. The services referenced in the chart include all the items listed in the last paragraph of the body text, while the services trimmed in the project include only the three largest budgets from that group–parks and rec, human services, and library services. We restricted cuts to these three so users could get a sense of what they would be cutting instead of slashing non-departmental funds. If you’re interested in the precise amounts for each budget item, check out Oakland’s spreadsheet for 2010-2011 at

    Thanks for catching the error, Jim! A note will now read “Flash 8 required” for anyone viewing the page without the program.

  9. I enjoyed the interactive nature of the exercise even if all the details are not perfected. It gives the local resident a taste of the complexities facing our governing officials.

  10. Keep reminding your readers that the actual “structural deficit” is some multiple of the “operating” deficit. Because the “operating deficit” doesn’t include expenses which are very real but not required to be counted as current expense by the self selected state and local politicians who set accounting standards.

    The fully funded cost of retiree medical and retirement plans could more than triple that 40Mill or so “operating” deficit that city officials avoid dealing with.

    Quote in recent NYT’s article on the small Alabama town of Prichard that stopped paying retirees so that it could continue to provide basic services

    “The reality for Prichard is that if you took money to build the pension up, who’s going to pay the garbage man?” he asked. “Who’s going to pay to run the police department? Who’s going to pay the bill for the street lights? There’s only so much money to go around.”

  11. livegreen

    I agree with Marleen, your poll is EXTREMELY simplistic.
    You leave out numerous options.

    On the salaries/pension contributions you mention this option only for Officers, not for other positions/Unions. There are other City Agencies not mentioned here. Employee contributions to medical benefits (during employment and upon retirement), which are basically free for entire families, are not included.

    Remember, during the boom, City employees got pay increases of 10%+ ABOVE and IN ADDITION to the CPI. That gravy should be an option to roll-back during a recession (without touching their CPI or Step programs). Not only layoffs/service cuts which mean 0 cut for those who remain employed.

    Finally, some have mentioned a roll-back of the OFCY “Kids First” to it’s previous 2.5% level of the General Fund (requiring another ballot measure).

    By leaving out many options, you are deciding for your readers that those items should not be cut. What gives you the right to do that?

    PS. When she was City Councilperson didn’t Jean Quan have such a balance the budget game? Was this before the NYT?

  12. AndyJ

    Bankruptcy voids -all- contracts. There is no reason for any public employee to be paying for a union to represent them. That is cash out of every paycheck going to a third party… No contracts mean that wages and benefits can be related to the community and not to some abstract ideal that has never existed.

    Brok is broke is broke… When there is no money, frills become waste. Pay for the services necessary and leave the rest to other more wealthy communities…

  13. I am doing a school project on north oakland. I haven’t been able to find updated information on things like : history of housing
    historic preservations
    population now
    areas owners & renters
    open spaces
    single family homes vs multi unit housing
    projected population
    developmental plans…
    Do/can you recommend a current site?

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