How Does Oakland’s Budget Compare to Budgets From Comparably Sized Cities?

This month, Oakland’s City Council will be considering one or more of the three budget proposals submitted on April 29 by Mayor Jean Quan. Mayor Quan has named the three budget proposals Scenario A (All Cuts Budget) Scenario B (Cuts Plus Savings from Employee Concessions) and Scenario C (Cuts, Plus Employee Savings, Plus Income from a Presumed $80 per Parcel Property Tax).

Make Oakland Better Now! thinks there are many unanswered questions about the budget, and we will continue to pose these here at Oaktalk and in the community.  But we thought it might be useful to look at other, comparably sized cities’ budgets to see how they compare in some key areas.  Today’s post, by MOBN! board member Ron Wolf, does just that.

The City of Oakland is proposing to close libraries, lay off park and tree maintenance staff, enact reductions in Police administrative staff, and reduce overall municipal staffing to a level of about 3500 FTE.

There is no question the City budget is under strain compared to historic funding levels.  Oakland is not unique, nearly every city in the country is under similar pressure.  How does Oakland compare to other cities around the country in their budget outlook?  The below table shows comparative data from cities of comparably sized cities.

A number of caveats apply here.  Different cities present their budgets in different ways, and different cities provide different services, so these comparisons sometimes required assumptions and guesswork.  Oakland’s estimated annual GPF debt service does not appear in its budget documents, so we base this number on a figure provided by Finance Director Joe Yu at a recent Finance and Management Committee Meeting.  Oakland’s number of sworn officers has obviously declined dramatically since October, 2009.  And finally, there are differences in cost of living, although Urban Wage CPI indices don’t vary by much more than 10% between any of the cities surveyed.

Nonetheless, these numbers present enormous food for thought and raise many questions about  what Oaklanders get from city government for their tax dollars.

Update:  Thanks to Lee Aurich for taking this data and showing it with some ratios.  This really helps put the numbers in perspective:

Make Oakland Better Now!

OakTalk Here is the blog of Make Oakland Better Now!, an Oakland community grassroots group of a grass-roots group of voters, volunteers, and policy advocates committed to improving the City of Oakland by focusing on public safety, public works, and responsible budgets. Founded in 2003, we’ve researched, lobbied, and successfully campaigned for a number of new, impactful policies, including the city’s Rainy Day Fund, Measure Z and Operation Ceasefire.

This Post Has 23 Comments

  1. newoaktown

    It would be easier to compare cities if your graphic chart had all the numbers aligned properly! 🙂 please fix!

  2. newoaktown

    Interesting that OPD has 200 (now 300?) less sworn police officers than Long Beach, for the same $199 million a year budget.

    Long Beach has 40% more civilian police staff than Oakland for the same money.
    Something, or many things, are wrong with Oakland’s police budget.
    Is the cost of living in Oakland 40-100% higher than Long Beach? If so, maybe the budget is fine. Better would be comparison to other Bay Area cities. I bet Oakland’s overspending relative to other Bay cities too.

    ATL has 90% more police as Oakland does.
    Newark has 60% more police than Oakland does.

    While labor is the main cost, I’d start with this sweetheart former city councilmember-landlord 30-year deal where OPD is paying $70,000.00 PER MONTH for its Eastmont Mall space.

    SEVENTY G’S A MONTH. It sounds bad at first glance.

    However to be fair, 70k/111,700sf = 63 cents per square foot. Cheaper than any downtown housing or commercial space that i know of. What’s rent on OPD’s 7th Street HQ?

    I doubt ANY merchant or non-tax paying organization pays more than a few grand a month in rent there though. Only Alameda County and City of Oakland police department would pay such rent. How about some civic contribution by the mall’s investor-owners: by cutting OPD’s rent? (Except the rent is really low already if I ran the numbers correctly. $0.66/sf)

    “ScanlanKempBard of Portland acquired the property in March 2007 for $78 million.”

    $78MM before the economy dropped out. but it’s still urban, so IMO if the developers hold on for decades they’ll make out nicely.

    = = = =

    Wikipedia history of the Eastmont Mall:

    “The mall opened in 1970 on the site of a 1920’s-era Chevrolet truck factory. Architect William Pereira designed the building…

    Originally known as Eastmont Mall, the mall was a popular and heavily-used shopping destination during most of the 1970s and 1980s; but declined by the 1990s due to a huge drop in the average income level, and a corresponding increase in the crime rate in the mall and the surrounding neighborhoods. many long-time middle-class residents relocated during this period.

    Eastmont’s primary anchor tenants were JCPenney, Mervyns, Safeway, Kinney Shoes (one of the nation’s leading shoe retailers at the time) and Woolworth’s.

    Eastmont Mall became the only remaining indoor mall in Oakland after the closure of the MacArthur-Broadway Center in North Oakland in the mid-1990s.

    JCPenney and Mervyns closed their Eastmont locations in the early 1990s. In the early 2000s, the mall was only 30 percent leased and had fallen into bankruptcy. Local real estate developers purchased the mall in 2000, and emphasized a focus on neighborhood and community services; many of the abandoned retail stores were converted into office space. The Mervyns location was converted into a substation for the Oakland Police Department and the JCPenney location was converted into a joint City of Oakland/Alameda County social services center. A handful of existing retail tenants stayed on, and a few new ones were attracted due to the success of the renovations, including Gazzali’s market, the only supermarket to serve the surrounding neighborhoods. In the spring of 2007, the mall was sold to a group of real estate investors based in Oregon.

    On March 21, 2009, in the neighborhood 2 blocks south of the mall, four Oakland police officers were killed, along with their assailant. This was among the deadliest attacks on law enforcement in California history.[1]

    Currently, the mall houses a supermarket, a social security office, a branch of the Oakland Public Library, a primary care medical clinic operated by the Alameda County Medical Center, General Assistance and WIC offices, and other business and social service centers.”

    Separately: “A 2-level (111700 square foot) Mervyn’s was added in the early 1980s, expanding the GLA of EASTMONT MALL to 671000 square feet. ”

    So for $78MM purchase outlay, that’s $116 per square foot excluding parking lots. Including parking lots, that’s $2.36 million per acre. Is East Oakland land worth that much today? In the future?
    Anyway developer’s issue not ours, as much.

    So rent at Eastmont doesn’t seem as bad as I thought, even though 70 grand a month sounds expensive. What about OPD/OPF labor? These costs are high — but would they be sustainable if we didn’t have an unfunded pension liability problem across city retirees? 3-5,000 people “earning” 90% of their pre-retirement salary for life seems untenably expensive for the city when city employees are making more than the rest of us* (*in the flats, not hills)…

    (Though if we all could ride a streetcar line to commute and not have every single resident buy a car and gasoline and maintenance and insurance separately, everyone would probably have more money left over. This is a separate discussion though — AND it’s of course the “big evil UN Agenda 21 plot to make Americans all poor, destitute and on the ‘teat’ of big brother government.” -aka east bay tea party paranoia and denial of reality)

    So not only do Oakland residents (of which half of current employees are) pay for current city employees + rich platinum benefits (3,000+ people) but also double-pay for ghost or shadow city employees (retirees: X,000 people, X unknown).

    Bruce do you have figures on how many retirees Oakland is paying to support right now? It would help illustrate our city’s budget problems.

    So would this chart:

  3. oaktalk

    newoaktown: New version of the chart inserted. Hope that helps.

  4. charlie stephen

    Terrific piece of work. Born and raised in Omaha, I was interested to see, though not surprised, that my hometown staffs five percent more police at approximately half the price. We’ve got to face the fact that Oakland cops, the older ones at least, are just too expensive for our modestly endowed town. At the same time, the cops we have, the younger ones at least, probably work harder than their peers in Omaha or most burgs in this country.

  5. MARY

    Using a cost of living comparison calculator between Omaha and Oakland, using a base salary of $65,000 this is the result I got:
    Cost of Living at Home Typical Salary at Work
    Old Location Omaha, NE Omaha, NE
    New Location Oakland, CA Oakland, CA
    Percent Change in $ +53.2% +21.6%
    Explanation The cost of living in Oakland, CA is 53.2% higher than in Omaha, NE . Therefore, you would have to earn a salary of $99,557 to maintain your current standard of living. Employers in Oakland, CA typically pay 21.6% more than employers in Omaha, NE . Therefore, if you take the same type of job in the same type of company in Oakland, CA you are likely to earn $79,043 .

  6. Velvel

    Great chart! It clearly shows how cities spending similar funds get twice as many police FTE as Oakland does. The chart also makes me sad to see that Long Beach is doing better than we are–given the two cities are supposed to be remarkably similar in many ways.

  7. Nancy Thompson

    My question is why Oakland’s debt service is so much higher than the other cities.

  8. Granger Jones

    What stands out the most is Oakland’s huge debt service…..a problem that can be attributed directly to Oakland’s weak and foolish political leaders….

  9. David Stein

    My congratulations to MOBN for putting this out. It is very helpful and a good start on a serious discussion about our City’s finances. Also, thanks to Ed Gerber. If you haven’t done so already, take a look at the comparison chart in the report he provided a link to. Finally, one question and one comment. The comment, we have to deal with our long term debt, pensions and health care. The question, I believe the Long Beach port is operated by the City and is part of the City budget (as opposed to ours being separate through the port of Oakland. Did you make an adjustment for that in your chart?

  10. Granger Jones

    Mr. Stein asks about the relationship between the revenue-raising Port of Oakland and the cash-strapped City of Oakland. That’s a very important question. In the present crisis Oakland’s tired old “business-as-usual” approach just doesn’t wash. Courage, brains, imagination and determination are called for. Where will these attributes come from?

  11. Ron Wolf

    Thanks to Ed for the link to the Fresno study.
    David, the Port of Long Beach was factored into the analysis, and omitted from the Long Beach figures.
    Granger, the State of California has in the constitution restrictions regarding ‘tidelands’ as a statewide public trust. This prevents Oakland City from sharing directly with Oakland Port revenues. The State Lands Commission has a brochure on this at –

  12. Granger Jones

    Ron…It may be as you say that the State Constitution has “restrictions” governing the jurisdiction of tidelands. However, the fact that a major Port sits on tidelands does not justify its financially separation from the City to which it is inextricably and permanently attached and entwined. If the Port of Oakland…including the Oakland Airport…. earns surpluses, then the City of Oakland should benefit from those surpluses.

    If the State Constitution limits the jurisdiction of abutting cities over tidelands then it abrogated those restrictions in 1968 when under the Burton Act jurisdiction over the Port of San Francisco was assumed by the City and County of San Francisco.

  13. David Stein

    Thanks Ron.

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