A new way to waste money: Municipal ID cards for Oakland

A couple of years ago, you couldn’t look at a Council agenda without being confronted with some sort of brain-dead, busybody proposal. Hours of public meeting time and thousands of words of media coverage were wasted on inanity like how long people should be able to tie up their dogs when they’re out shopping, banning plastic bags (later rescinded), declaring Oakland’s opposition to war in Iran, paying at-risk youth to stand around BART stations (never happened but now back in a modified form), and of course, how could we forget, banning smoking outside.

These days you see less of that, I sort of assumed because the Council is too busy leaping from crisis to crisis these days, so they don’t have time to sit around thinking up new ways to waste City resources. Also, with an $83 million (or, probably higher, actually) budget deficit, they don’t want to do anything that’s going to cost any money. Or so I thought.

But Oakland’s eternal devotion to reaching way beyond our capacity rears its ugly head again today at the Finance and Management Committee meeting (PDF), where the Committee will discuss a proposal, introduced by District 4 Councilmember Jean Quan and District 5 Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente, to create a municipal identification card program (PDF) for Oakland. Ugh.

You may have read about San Francisco’s municipal ID card program, which launched in January and had issued a little over 2,000 cards as of the beginning of May. The idea is that municipal IDs can offer a legitimate form of identification to undocumented immigrants who are unable to obtain a driver’s license or State ID, and are therefore unable to receive certain services. The cards are also supposed to improve relations between undocumented immigrants and the police, although in San Francisco, there are reports of the SFPD not recognizing the cards as legitimate.

Now, I have no problem with the concept of municipal IDs in theory, or with the goals behind the proposal. But Oakland, right now, has no business trying to implement an City ID Card program. To call the proposal before the Committee today “half-baked” would be generous. Let’s take a look at the delusions in the staff report (PDF).

First, the list of groups who need it. The report lists undocumented immigrants as the first beneficiary, which makes sense, because, well, people with no proof of legal US residence is who these sorts of programs were intended to help in the first place. But then it goes on to list youth elderly, homeless, and transgender populations as those who would need the card as well. In the first three cases, because they “may not have access to personal records/documents” for a variety of reasons, and in the fourth because they “may not have medical proof necessary to complete Medical Information Authorization form (DL 328) for name and gender change.” Hello! We can’t issue City ID cards without proof of personal identification! Take a look at the required documents in San Francisco (a similar list is proposed for Oakland in the report), and you can see that the only difference between proving your identity for a municipal ID and a State ID is that identification from other countries counts. If elderly people don’t have the documents required to get a State ID, they won’t have the documents required for a City ID either.

Then there’s a list of potential uses that makes my head hurt. People could use their City ID cards to get discounts at local stores, and as an ATM/debit card, direct deposit, a library card, a student ID, and a bus pass. If Oakland thinks we have the capacity to create a card that does all that, well, someone at the City might want to give the folks over at Translink a call. The report doesn’t explain how all this would be achieved, simply that “We do know that the technology exists to create a card with multiple capabilities.” Uh-huh.

But the worst part, by far, is the “fiscal impacts” section of the report, which basically suggests that starting a City ID program won’t cost the City anything at all, and in fact, might increase revenue. This is beyond delusional. The report indicates that we won’t have to invest anything in a card printing machine, because we might be able to use San Francisco’s or partner with other cities to share one, or have a bank make them, or “use card machine equipment already owned by City departments if such equipment has the capacity to produce high quality, secure cards with the capacity to add additional functions i.e. magnetic strip for future activation.” Yeah, I’m sure we have that just lying around.

It also also “not known at this time whether additional staff resources may be needed.” Hmm. In San Francisco, it cost $500,000 to get their card program going, and because (obviously) you need staff to, you know, issue the cards, it has a budget of $250,000 for the 09-10 fiscal year to cover the costs of the two full-time and one part-time employees manning the program.

It’s deeply offensive to suggest that a City so strapped for cash that it’s proposing having libraries open only two days a week and cutting its park maintenance staff in half should, right now, even consider taking on the additional burden of such a complex program, especially one that’s so poorly thought out. Oakland needs to stop trying to do anything new until we can figure out how to adequately provide the services we’re already supposed to have! If the Committee, then the Council, approves the proposal, staff will be directed to return with an implementation plan including actual fiscal impacts in 8 weeks (well, actually, the fall, since the 8 week deadline lands in the middle of recess, but wev).

25 thoughts on “A new way to waste money: Municipal ID cards for Oakland

  1. 94610BizMan

    “This is beyond delusional.” Perhaps the city could get a double cost savings by laying off the staff that came up with this idea. First the city saves the staffers pay and then the city saves on the delusional ideas.

  2. Mike d'Okla

    Don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this one! It is a perfect example of why Oakland has such a hard time getting anything useful accomplished.

  3. Andy K

    Like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Why, oh why? And Jean Quan thinks she can be mayor?

  4. V Smoothe Post author

    The Committee unanimously approved the proposal this afternoon, and it will now move on to the full City Council next week. The discussion was depressing – lots of talk and all these speakers about how great having a municipal ID would be for undocumented immigrants, which I don’t think anybody disagrees with, but of course no acknowledgment of how Oakland can never manage to properly implement anything or why we should expect this to be any different, which of course it won’t.

    And there was all this talk about how we need to make sure the IDs are marketed and available to everybody, not just immigrants, so immigrants aren’t marginalized by having an ID nobody else uses, but of course no discussion of what kind of capability the City will have to issue these cards in any number.
    You’d think that if we’re going to be anything like San Francisco and have a many-months waiting period to get one, you’d want to prioritize giving them to the people who need them most.

    I’ll post the video once it’s finished uploading.

  5. das88

    Maybe we can get the medical marijuana dispensaries to modify their ID cards, so they can also serve as Municipal ID cards. That way the city can collect the extra 1.8% on card fees. Talk about a win-win-win!

    Seriously, though, thanks for having a post on just a run-of-the-mill disaster. Lately, ABO has been a bit on the depressing side.

  6. Kevin Cook

    I’m excited to use my ACORN currency to pay parking tickets. Will it be good in the dispensaries as well?

  7. Ralph

    Okay, I haven’t listened to all of the aide’s summary, but I really want to ask her a couple of questions how does a homeless person show proof of residency, was she not listening when the deputy chief said that a muni id is no substitute for a valid state issue driver’s id, so exactly how would this id help someone with a broken taillight – you are still driving without a valid driver’s license?

    Why would people who can apply for state issued ID ever apply for this card? Isn’t it pie in the sky thinking to think that all 400K people in Oakland would want this card. If you are here illegally why am I giving you an id to legitimize your existence here. Aren’t seniors eligible for state issued IDs. I am of course a fan of charging people, who can probably least afford it, for this debit feature.

    I really don’t see how this going to help people. How does this help get a job. If an employer needs to obtain Column A, B and/or C ID (or whatever the Federal requirements are) how does this ID help?

    Am I to understand that the employers and families along College Avenue are hiring undocumented illegals.

    Did the police commit themselves or did someone bend them over and say your b*** will get on board?

    I still don’t get this buy local component to expand the interest. My discount needs to be at least as much if not more than what I get from my other cards. Since my current cards don’t cost me anything this card needs to be cost neutral. And if you don’t have a bank how is this card going to be used as a debit card. Shouldn’t JQ determine the fee of the card by first examining the cost and then estimating the potential volume. Throwing out $15 b/c that is what they charge in the 415 seems a bit premature. (that is not to say that she thinks $15 s/b the cost, but somehow these numbers even if used as example somehow end up becoming law.)

  8. len

    Quite a list of ngo’s and local pols endorsing this. Heavy on the latino side to be expected. I could see why DLF and JQ had to support it. But it should have died in committee. So what happens now, the council will send it into hibernation for a two year staff study?

  9. Phil Wolff

    Standardizing on a single ID system usually saves a big company money. Did anyone make a case for cost reduction?

    btw, cards usually don’t have much data beyond what’s printed on them. It’s the ID on the magstripe or chip that connects the card different services on a server somewhere.

  10. Max Allstadt

    So Vsmoothe and I were IMing about this topic this morning… Particularly on the issue of local currency, I was skeptical of her skepticism. But I just read Wilson Riles’ proposal, and I now understand where she was coming from.

    Riles’ proposal is totally implausible.

    Pay city employees in “ACORN”s… Has anybody asked them how they feel about that? Create a “reserve board”… What would that cost? Give away free money to hotel guests…Didn’t we just put a TOT hike on the ballot?

    Riles proposes absolutely no viable incentive that would entice anyone to use this currency. The only incentives he provides are coercive (force city employees to be paid in scrip) or ideological (people will want to use the scrip to help the city).

    I have heard other local currency proposals where local residents can purchase the local currency at 95 cents on the dollar. That’s simple. That makes sense. That’s something that might even be coordinated by a chamber of commerce without government intervention. It’s arguably just a means of creating locally restricted coupons. That could be done. Riles’ proposal as it stands is flat out crazy.


    As far as the benefits of local ID goes, I would have to look into reports from New Haven and SF, which I have not seen yet. It sounds expensive.

    I believe that it may be possible to provide many of the same positive effects by increasing multilingual outreach to disadvantage populations. We have a sanctuary city policy. I don’t know how far it goes, but if we can make headway in teaching the undocumented population that they can file a police report without repercussions, do we need a municipal ID.

    The ID issue is harder for me to wrap my head around because I’ve never been undocumented. If the cost-benefit makes sense, and there really is no other way to achieve the same benefit, I might get behind it. But how do we weigh that comparison? How do we create reasonable predictions of the hard stats that would show us a benefit? I’d like to hear from some advocates on this forum, we don’t have anybody offering reasonable points to counter naysayers. Until I see some numbers I’ll withhold my criticism. I’m skeptical, but open minded. Win me over!

  11. Patrick

    Riles’ proposal is just another way saying what has been said before: our City employees are overpaid- and for the most part – live outside of our City. So, spend in Oakland or live in Oakland, it all boils down to the same thing. It will never work. The City facilitates the health of other cities while bankrupting Oakland.

  12. Ralph

    Probably too early to tell how this program has fared in New Haven. The only arguments I have been able to find against are its legitimizing illegals. In terms of New Haven funding, a non-profit is provided funding. I would hope we could find similar grants but more importantly I hope we do a cost plus fee because at some point the grant will probably walk and this program needs to fund itself. I am already doing enough to fund the illegals in this country; at some point, illegals need to pay for themselves.

    Since NH, SF, and now Oakland use the shakedown for cash scenario as a reason for issuing the muni id, I would really like to know how real this problem is.

  13. Deckin

    Wow. If I hadn’t read the piece from Riles I’d have thought this ACORN business was made up as a joke. Let’s coin a new phrase to describe this kind of economic thinking: Cargo Cult EconomicsI/i>. I’m sure we all remember from Anthropology class the story of New Guineans having seen US Army Air Corps signalmen and thinking it was the signaling that actually brought the planes with cargo. So they started signaling thinking they could bring the planes too.

    So Riles (and apparently a frighteningly many others) believe that they can bring the cargo to Oakland not by addressing the ills that keep money backed by the full faith and credit of the US away from it–crime, blight, etc. No, the problem can be solved by creating our own new money and forcing city employees to be paid a fraction of their wages in it. Let’s see how this would work. I’m a local merchant and I average 1K a day in sales. Let’s give Riles the outlandish assumption that the new ACORNS would only supplement existing sales (a major concession). So now I make 1K in real money and, say, 100ACORNS as well. By hypothesis, this 100ACORNS would only be good for goods and services made in Oakland. But, even supposing that I make some purchases from suppliers in Oakland, how to guarantee that my Oakland supplier will accept ACORNS? Well, we’ll have to force them too.

    So far, so bad. My supplier is forced to accept my 100ACORNS in exchange for some supplies. But what are they going to do with their Oakish windfall? Why, exchange it for something else Oaklandish. OK, fine. But, unless the banks will accept ACORNS for debts acrued in dollars, the supply of ACORNS will never grow (remember Reserve Banking from Econ 1?). We’ll all just be passing around the same amount of ACORNS (like Deadheads used to do with their barter systems). They only conceivable way this could help Oakland is if the ACORNS free up dollars for purchases outside the system. But what reason is there to think it will have this effect? In fact, because you’re decreasing the amount of US$ in the system (by cutting municipal pay), you’re going to get less dollars in the system and a fixed amount of ACORNS passed from hand to hand. No business can expand by using ACORNS, no taxes can be paid with ACORNS.

    We’ll just have cargo for nothing. Yea!

  14. Deckin

    Sorry for belaboring the ACORN stupidity, but this is such a teachable moment, and maybe some politicians might be listening–who knows? Common sense might break out.

    There’s an Economic Law (really, a theory), called Gresham’s Law. In short, it states that if you have multiple currencies and one has a lower perceived worth or backing, then the bad money will drive out the good. The good money will be hoarded, and the bad money will be preferred in exchanges so as to preserve the supply of good money. So, back to Oakland: As more and more ACORNS get passed around, the politicians will congratulate themselves and, of course, reward us by issuing more ACORNS (requiring maybe more be paid in ACORNS to city employees, etc.). Well, who on earth would ever part with dollars to buy what an ACORN will buy? So, Oakland businesses will become flush with ACORNS, but their taxes and utilities and purchases outside Oakland (we’re not going to ban that are we?) will still be owed in dollars!

    What a recipe for success! It’s no wonder the Marxists’ first prescription is that the whole world must succumb to revolution before the paradise arrives. Unless the whole world adopts or recognizes ACORNS the system is bound to collapse. We have nothing to lose but our chains!

  15. Max Allstadt

    The other thing that bugs me about this proposal is feature creep.

    The card apparently is supposed to do everything! ID, Currency, Library card, parking ticket card… it slices, it dices, it makes juillienne fries!

    If a technology project is too complicated at inception, it is doomed to fail. Apple and Google introduce products that do one thing, and damn well. They only add features when the public has had time to understand the original product. And when they add features, those features do one thing, well.

    IF this card proves to be feasible and not a boondoggle, it must begin by doing one thing, and damn well. Any additional bells and whistles will be a wasteful mess.

  16. Barry K

    A few months ago, the EastBayExpress reported this was on the horizon.
    It comes a couple of years after the Council voted to make Oakland a Sanctuary City. I wonder what new parcel tax Jean Quan will come up with to pay for this? Maybe another special assessment on the “Overserved” in the community.

  17. LoveOakland

    I attended the hearing yesterday (on another item) and listened to the proposal first hand. A couple of observations:

    1. The Councilmembers made it very clear that the program has to be self-supporting and directed staff to explore a number of options including using SF’s security machinery for the cards to avoid the cost of buying it for Oakland.

    2. Crime is a real issue in Oakland. We need everyone who is here, regardless of their status, to feel safe reporting a crime to the Police. That’s not ‘legitimizing’ anyone, it’s just common sense. Would you rather we wait until the thug victimizes a citizen?

    3. Let’s keep in mind that we are largely a nation of immigrants, some of whom didn’t exactly follow the rules getting here. When my Aunt landed at Ellis Island 90 years ago from Europe, she would have been automatically turned back because of her cerebral palsey and probably killed in WWII. Instead, another sister took my Aunt’s exam. Despite her disability, she went on to work and pay taxes for more than 50 years.

  18. Max Allstadt

    I have absolutely no qualms with making life easier and safer for undocumented immigrants. I’m actually ideologically opposed to the concept of national borders, though I believe they must be dissolved slowly over decades to prevent social unrest.

    If the IDs can work, do it. But I see many aspects of their benefits that could be achieved with other policies, and I see feature-creep galore. The concept needs ride upon effective and simple policy if it is to succeed.

  19. Patrick

    It is absolutely infuriating that a City that is unable to provide it’s tax-paying citizens with acceptable basic services is going to waste money on an unproven, half-baked scheme like this. Can we afford COMPStat? No. Can we afford to pave our roads or fix our sidewalks? No. Can we afford to keep our parks clean and our libraries open? No. But I guess there is a little bit of leeway in our 83+million dollar deficit to fund this ridiculous bit of wishful thinking. The City of Oakland can’t even figure out how to save e-mails, how they expect us to believe they can handle this technology is beyond me. “Well, Jean, we would have picked up the ID Card machine from San Francisco but it was a furlough day. The truck is broken anyway and the guy who fixes trucks was laid off.”