Oakland budget nightmare getting scarier

Oakland is in a tough situation with the budget, right? We all knew that already. Just how tough? O.M.F.G. You have no idea.

That $4.8 million gap that we still had left to figure out for this fiscal year (the one that ends in July)? Now it’s $10.4 million. Oh, and that $33 million deficit expected for FY10-11 (which starts in July)? Yeah, now it’s $42.6 million.

Is the budget really all that bad?

The “Context” section of the agenda report for next week’s budget meeting lays it all out in pretty frank language, so I am just going to quote that for you:

  • The severity of the City’s fiscal crisis is truly unprecedented.

  • Less than four years ago, in FY2006-07, the City collected over $471 million in General Purpose Fund (GPF) revenues, and by year-end had nearly $56 million in reserves. That year alone, the Real Estate Transfer Tax revenue was at $61.5 million.

  • In FY2010-11, the City is anticipated to have only $10.4 million in GPF reserves by year-end, and is projected to collect just under $400 million in revenues by year-end. The Real Estate Transfer tax collection is now at a low $28 million. Collectively, this means that the City has over $120 million less in resources today (between one-time reserve funds and ongoing revenues) than we had just four years ago. During the same period, while the GPF-funded workforce shrunk by 12.5%, personnel costs in this fund have dropped by less than three percent.

  • The City has already implemented $170 million in budget balancing measures since July 2008, with $18.9 million approved for the current fiscal year as recently as February 16, 2010. Since the February action — which addressed most of the current year’s $23.7 million gap — our revenues continued to decline, increasing the budget shortfall by $6 million in FY 2009-10 and $11.2 million in FY 2010-11. Currently estimated financial gaps (net of previous Council actions) are: $10.4 million for FY2009-10 and $42.6 million for FY2010-11.

  • At the same time, means of filling the financial gaps have diminshed: (a) the City has already cut a great proportion of spending and programs, and the remaining discretionary budget is just 8 percent of the total GPF appropriation; (b) the reserves are minimal; and (c) “easy” revenue fixes, such as fee increases and uses of one-time unrestricted funds, have already been exhausted. At this point, balancing the budget structurally will require a combination of new taxes and significant cuts to public safety departments. Public safety accounts for 66.5% of the General Purpose Fund budget, and if a 15% (as an example) across-the-board cut were to be applied to non-safety departments only (also excluding debt service), only $15 million in savings would be generated while decimating key recreation, senior, library and internal programs. Moreover, cuts to youth and library programs would violate local Measures K/OO/D and Q. At the same time, a 15% cut to public safety departments would generate an additional $42.6 million in savings, but would violate provisions of Measure Y.

So yes. It is really that bad.

So what are we going to do about it?

Well, with only 3 months left in this fiscal year, it’s basically too late to do get to $10.4 million by making cuts. Well, not basically. It just is. So instead, staff is proposing the following:

  • restructure pension obligations ($5.5 million)
  • sale of or issuance of revenue bonds for the Medical Hill Garage ($5 million)

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Wonderful, more tricks. But again, this late in the year, there really is no other choice.

How did the deficit even get so big?

Well, it turns out that like, every tax is lower than we planned it to be. Shocker, right? $5.3 million shortfall in sales tax, $4.1 million shortfall in utility consumption tax, $1.1 million shortfall in real estate transfer tax, $1.7 million shortfall in hotel tax, $0.95 million shortfall in parking tax, and so on and so on with permit fees, fines, service charges, interest, etc. You get the idea.

Anyway, just lower than expected revenues brings us to a $25.6 million for next year’s deficit. Then we have to account for the fact that the budget for FY10-11 was never actually balanced when the Council adopted it in the first place. It hinged on revenue that just was not going to come in, notably $9 million from a surcharge on ticket sales at the Coliseum. Add to that your typical overspending from the police department, you get a little deeper in the hole.

And then there’s the small matter of us needing to get around to, you know, hiring some police officers at some point, since the police force is already well below Measure Y mandated minimum staffing levels, and it just keeps getting lower. So that costs money too.

And what about next year?

Balancing next year’s budget, well, it’s gonna hurt. How much? Here you go:

  • Staff reductions, including elimination of Microcomputer Computer Specialists I and III in Information Technology, administrative staff in Finance & Management, Human Resources and Police, are anticipated to save $2.4 million; transfer of 9.0 PT Cadets to the Asset Forfeiture Fund from FY 2009-10 to FY 2010-11 would save $0.3 million. The proposal reflects the elimination of 15.05 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions, of which 13.05 FTEs are filled (8.0 FTEs were approved for elimination as of April 1, 2010; of these, six positions were filled.

  • Savings from the 15% cuts to elected offices – requested by the City Council on February 16, 2010 – are included in the above estimate. Details on the specific reduction measures are available for the Mayor’s Office (2.0 FTE Mayor’s PSE 14s and operations and maintenance reductions), City Council (6.0 FTE Legislative Analysts would be eliminated, including 4.05 FTE in the GPF) and City Attorney’s Office (3.0 FTEs eliminated and savings from filling a position at a lower rate). The City Auditor’s Office will have operational savings for FY 2009-10; this office has informed staff of its intention to seek a City Attorney opinion on minimum staffing levels for chartered City departments prior to providing detailed reductions.

  • Program reductions and eliminations, including the Linkages Grant Match and the Homeless Mobile Outreach programs in the Department of Human Services ($0.3 million).

  • Grant reductions of varying levels ($1.9 million), including

    • 25% reductions to City institutions, including the Oakland Zoo, Chabot Space & Science Center and Children’s Fairyland

    • 50% reductions for City-affiliated entities (AIDS Prevention & Education Initiative, Hacienda Peralta and the City/County Collaborative on Children & Youth) and non-profit organizations (Family Bridges, Fruitvale Senior Center, Vietnamese Senior Services, Family Bridges, Fruitvale Senior Center, Cypress-Mandela Training Center, Symphony in the Schools, Women’s Business Initiative, Jack London Aquatic Center, Oakland Asian Cultural Center, OUSD Academies Program, Artists’ Grants and the Day Laborers’ Program).

    • 100% reduction for the Oakland School of the Arts

  • Proposed new revenues and other financing, including a proposed new public safety parcel tax and increased and expanded utility consumption tax; an increase in the parking citation revenue expected from better collection rates); one-time and ongoing annual proceeds from the sale of billboard space to Clear Channel, Inc. (which is the subject of a separate staff report included on the April 1, 2010 special City Council agenda); anticipated new grant revenue to offset firefighter personnel services costs; and stricter enforcement of false alarm fines ($24.1 million). Proposed new taxes would need to be approved by the voters; this notion is discussed later in the report.

  • Sale of assets ($12.8 million), including lease of the George P. Scotlan Convention Center to the Oakland Redevelopment Agency (ORA); sale of two properties to private parties; and sale of the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center. Sale of assets is the subject of a separate staff report included on the April 1, 2010 special City Council agenda.

No, I don’t understand how the City is going to get $24 million from false alarm fines either. Nor do I understand why the Auditor thinks it is okay to just refuse to take any kind of budget cut just like every other department in the City has been doing for two freaking years.

And what about taxes? Well, the report is pretty frank about that too:

Ballot measures to raise additional revenues are simply unavoidable. We can not solve the current fiscal crisis with one-time measures and program cuts alone, unless significant reductions to public safety are made. The possible ballot measures are a public safety parcel tax and temporary increase and expansion to the utility users tax; combined, they could generate up to $20.6 million in new revenues as soon as FY 2010-11. Another ongoing source of revenue would be a quarter-percent add-on sales tax, otherwise known as a transactions and use tax (TUT).

So did I depress you enough?

Don’t like these cuts?

If you have, like, you know, ideas about the budget, you should share them with the Council. Because otherwise, they’re just going to get like 300 e-mails saying the City shouldn’t cut any grants and the Council will decide that must be what everyone actually wants and that’s what they’ll do. Contact info:

Special budget balancing meeting (PDF) happens on April 1st. Expect it to be long. Happy Friday!

38 thoughts on “Oakland budget nightmare getting scarier

  1. Andy K

    What are the real prospects for any of these new ballot measures for new taxes passing? I know that most people here will mostly say they won’t support them – and neither will I – but what about the city as a whole?

  2. Marleenlee

    Measure Y is the biggest fraud perpetrated on Oakland taxpayers. How stupid do they think we are? Measure Y promised us staffing at 803 and they promised not to collect the tax if they didn’t keep general funding at a level sufficient to maintain non-Measure Y staffing at 739. It’s now 30 officers under that and will drop further before the year is out because the City has refused to fund academies. This totally violates Measure Y. That’s why I’ve sued them AGAIN! The violAtions go way beyond that too. Nobody in their right mind would support another one of these taxes.

  3. Rich Edwards

    Nowhere, in anything just reported, is anyone acknowledging the elephant in the room. The City of Oakland pay scale is way too high (very well documented — relative to other California cities and nationally) and our benefits, including retirement health care and pensions, are way too generous. Until we recognize this beast and start to do something about it, we’re going to be playing this nickel-and-dime cutting game for a while. In the private sector, companies of all stripes are cutting pay, pensions, health care benefits, etc. It’s time the City of Oakland wakes up to the reality of depressed tax collections and starts to move to live within its means, also. That means serious negotiations with the unions and cuts to pay and benefits — NOW.

  4. David

    So, did I read correctly that staffing was cut 12.5%, but payroll/benefit costs only dropped 3%? WTF?

    Everyone else got that much of a raise? They only cut the cheapest workers?

    Cut pensions. Cut retiree health care. Now.

  5. Mike Hardy

    Yep, Rick, David – there is no other way, personnel compensation is the elephant and the unions are going to have to take a big haircut just like everyone else in the free world. It’s time to wield the axe on public employee union pensions, retiree health care and salaries. They don’t match what the private sector pays at all and, if you allow that the private sector is a balanced employee/employer labor market are thus not an inefficient market and need to be re-aligned.

    Nothing else is large enough to make a difference, yet that alone is large enough to solve the problem.

    I’m no anti-union foamer, and I’m certainly not a partisan (I like a good fact when I see it) – but check out Governor Chris Christie from New Jersey. What’s doing is political suicide, very difficult, unpopular, and also the only way to balance a budget in “the new normal” (e.g., 2002-3 style revenue)


    It is a shame that most other places, including Oakland, are apparently in a competition to see how long they can pile up debt while they pretend the tough medicine isn’t necessary.

  6. livegreen

    Could it be that benefits are the reason for the difference? If that’s the case, even if you fire 100% of the employees, you’d still reduce payroll/benefits costs by a little under 30%.

  7. Andy K

    Yes, City wages and benefits are way out of whack. It would be one thing if we got great service for these wages, but that is not the norm in my experience.

    Better show up in droves to the Council meeting to get them cut though – because you can be sure that the union workers will.

  8. Ralph

    How does one obtain information of police staffing levels?

    Can the city put a ballot measure before the voters that allows council to overwrite existing ballot box minimums and allocations? i.e. we can reduce funding below the current floors and eliminate minimum funding requirements

  9. len raphael

    yes the false alarm 24Mill is probably an early april fools day joke. but why did utility taxes drop by 4mill? was there a huge drop in demand or was it price that i missed?

    if the pol’s proposed a $500 parcel tax titled “the pothole afterschool senior meal green job training library public lighting parcel tax” i’ll bet it would get enough votes.

    calling it public security, will hit into combo of cash strapped property owners and anti cop residents.

    -len raphael

  10. Matthai Kuruvila

    It’s $240,000 for the false alarm enforcement. See page 15 and the line items for the appendices. I made the same mistake. The $24 million is for the entire category of revenues mentioned on page 5, including the new proposed taxes (which alone account for $20.6 of that $24 million)

  11. Navigator

    Yes, the City had 803 officers with only 277 on patrol. The real boondoggle here is the fact that a small percentage of the Oakland Police Department are PATROL officers. The Chief had to pry 30 of them from their desks and put them on the streets. This is an an absolute affront to the good citizens of Oakland. What good is having 803 officers when only 277 are patrolling the streets and preventing crime? Let’s stop worrying about the number of officers on the force and start worrying about what they’re doing.

  12. Born in Oakland

    Voters in Oakland will NOT vote for a tax increase so better get to Plan B quickly. Wish I had the pension/retiree health benefits City employees have…but I don’t and neither do any of my friends. The advantage to an Employer to NOT offer generous retirement benefits at age 55 is that it keeps the experienced worker in the workplace much longer to age 62-67 depending on when Social Security steps in.

  13. Bruce Nye

    Len’s comment:

    if the pol’s proposed a $500 parcel tax titled “the pothole afterschool senior meal green job training library public lighting parcel tax” i’ll bet it would get enough votes.

    On the other side of the coin, I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time studying the budget for 2009-11, and it’s just about impossible to tell what services are lost by reducing revenues in various departments and what is gained by adding revenues in those departments because of the tangle of funds, mandates, etc. Chamber of Commerce proposed presenting the budget in a way that would allow Oaklanders to make these judgments. And it may well be that a reduction of city services to little more than police, fire and other public safety measures and mandated programs (a reduction which I find horrifying, but which may be necessary) will force the issue and bring clarity to what revenues are necessary to provide what services.

  14. oakie

    As long as our politicians are elected for and by the employee unions of the city, there will be no progress. The only real solution is charter amendments limiting the ability of these shills for the unions to do their damage. We can start will the elimination of all defined benefits pension plans. Another would be to force the city to outsource any service except police and fire if the cost would be less than having city employees do the service. That would go a long way to returning us to a government designed to efficiently provide necessary services to the citizens and not a form of enrichment for the likes of Deborah Edgerly and her nephew.

  15. len raphael

    Bruce, gotta wonder why Oakland finance dept got some kind of award or rating for excellence in municipal accounting. Either the other cities’ financial statements are really really impossible to undersntand or the award is given for the most convoluted hardest to understand what’s really happening set of city financials.

    How about a link to the Chamber of Commerce suggestions?

    If the city just posted preliminary statements monthly, in a format allowing exports to excel, and a way to drill down into the detail, that would be good start.

  16. Brad

    Funny how this is a “big surprise” at the end of the fiscal year. NOT. Everyone has been screaming about this for months, but fuddly-duddly city council members like Jean Quan decided to push the hard decisions down the road.

  17. MarleenLee

    Ralph: Recently, the Police Department has been compiling monthly staffing reports, which are presented to the Public Safety Committee. Those reports are attached to the Public Safety Meeting agendas, and you can find them on line.

    There is a dispute about whether Measure Y actually requires “minimum staffing,” or something less than that. Check out the City’s own “FAQs” regarding Measure Y here. http://measurey.org/index.php?page=measure-y-faq This website specifically states that minimum staffing of non-Measure Y officers is guaranteed at 739. However, when Charles Pine sued, and later, when I sued, the City claimed that all that is required is that the City “appropriate” sufficient funding to maintain 739 officers; they didn’t actually have to employ them. How’s that for some fancy legal footwork? Anyway, now they’re not even doing the appropriation, so good luck on their legal defense with my latest suit. However, Measure Y could be repealed, so in answer to your last question, yes, that is possible. The voters could agree to repeal Measure Y (requires 50% vote) and replace it with something else (requires 2/3 vote). If the City came up with something better than Measure Y, and promised to make up for all the violations of Measure Y, I could support that. But I doubt that’s going to happen.

    Navigator: it’s good that you are focusing on what the police actually do. That’s important. But don’t tell the rest of us what we should be doing. There is no dispute that the police department is understaffed. Measure Y does require certain staffing numbers (certainly in terms of the number of Measure Y officers) and the City promised us a force of 803, which we don’t have. Anytime politicians break a $200 million promise (10 years times $20 million annually under Measure Y) I think it is important to hold them accountable.

  18. livegreen

    Navigator & Marleen, Is the 277 officers on patrol an accurate number? If so out of 739 officers does seem low. Obviously some will be in Investigations, internal affairs and administration, but I’d be curious about the rest of the breakdown.

    The M-Y officers (PSO’s, CRT’s, etc. adding up to 803) are separate.

  19. JB

    lg: There are currently over 320 OPD officers assigned to patrol. There are also 40 sergeants (due to the NSA-mandated 1:8 ratio) and 12 lieutenants assigned to patrol. So there are over 370 sworn personnel assigned to patrol (out of 777 total sworn). Other assignments include: PSO (57 officers and 9 sergeants, owing to Measure Y), IAD (over 30 sworn personnel due to NSA-driven investigative-sufficiency standards), Foot Patrol, Motors, etc. There are an additional 28 or so command staff (lieutenants and above). The remainder is made up of: Investigations (homicide, robbery, assault, theft, domestic violence, child abuse, missing persons, etc.), various specialized units (e.g., Crime Reduction Teams (30), street task forces (25)), and so on. One thing to remember is that patrol officers are not the only ones “on the street” while everyone else is “in the building” or “behind a desk”. The vast majority of sworn personnel are on the street every day, even if they aren’t taking 911 calls. And most of the rest are in investigations (with a truly absurd number investigating OPD personnel rather than the overwhelming number of crimes against persons that occur in Oakland).

  20. livegreen

    Thanks for the break down JB. I get what you’re saying about many/most non-patrol officers being “on the street”. I also get & totally agree about Investigations & the absurd back-log in unsolved cases.

    Which is why I’d like to know if Judge Henderson can release some Investigators. I know the rest of the NSA needs to be implemented, and that he/OPD cares about the NSA/IA, but shouldn’t the rest of us get the benefit of the duties of Investigators?

    Aren’t the Crime Reduction Teams (CRTs) M-Y funded too?

  21. Ken O

    JB: specifically, 20 OPD investigators investigate OPD’s own staff/officers for alleged misconduct (largely called in by criminals to take the heat off themselves), while a mere 8 investigators investigate ALL violent crimes/assaults against residents/ visitors/ businesses in Oakland.

  22. MarleenLee

    Measure Y calls for 6 Crime Reduction Team officers. Notably, for most of the past 5 years, there were no Measure Y CRTs. In fact, for quite a while, all the CRTs were disbanded. Recently, Mesaure Y PSOs have been asked to spend a portion of their day responding to 911 calls. This is brand new, due to understaffing of OPD. Apparently they are being asked to respond to calls only in their beats.

  23. Navigator

    We have 777 officers with only 320 assigned to patrol? That’s outrageous no matter how you slice it. JB, are you saying the those 12 lieutenants actually patrol the city on a regular basis? When Chief Batts took over we had 803 sworn officers with 277 on the patrol division. Whats up with that?

    It seems to me that we have a Department tailored for cushy seniority positions for the benefit of membership while the task of reducing crime in Oakland has always taken a back seat. It’s nice to call for a larger police force but we better hold the force we have accountable to do the work they’re being paid to do. We need to know how many members of this force are being used to actively and immediately reduce crime in Oakland. Enough with the cushy generated division jobs. We have too many pencil pushers sitting behind desks and no enough boots on the streets. That’s the problem. It’s not the fact that we have 777 officers vs 803 officers. The problem is that we have only 320 active patrol officers. I don’t care if we count the lieutenant’s trip to the coffee shop as being “on the street.” That just doesn’t fly.

  24. Robert

    Did I understand this correctly, that they are considering putting a parcel tax on the November ballot to help the budget problem for 2010/2011? Regardless of the merits, this would not go on to the tax rolls until 2011/2012, since the November ballot is after the cc has to certify the Oakland tax rate to the County tax assessor.

    For what it is worth, I did write to cc suggesting that this parcel tax is really not such a good idea.

  25. MarleenLee

    Oh, Robert, Robert, you simply must read the actual Budget Deficit Report! Then you would understand everything! It clearly states: “The parcel tax revenue would not be generated until FY 2011/12 due to the timing of the November election and the August deadline for any new parcel item to be recorded by the County for collection in that fiscal year. To address this ash flow issue, staff recommends the issuance of a tax anticipation note that would securitze the future parcel tax revenue stream so that funds could be realized in the fiscal year in which the parcel tax is levied. The revenue anticipation note would have to be issued every year as long as the parcel tax remained in place.” So you see, Robert, that your question was very naive, LOL. Would anybody care to explain what a “tax anticipation note is?”

  26. livegreen

    Q: So a [property] “tax anticipation note” is a tax before it’s been voted on? -OR- when you vote for a future property tax, you also get a past property tax?

    OMG, can we PLEASE have a centrist, non-retiree run for Mayor? I don’t even believe we have to put up with these shell-games.

    Thanks for the quote ML. Although sometimes ignorance really is bliss…

  27. Ralph

    LG, the tax anticipation note is just that a short term note to be repaid with anticipated tax revenue. i.e. issuing debt in the anticipation that there will be tax revenue to cover it. obviously a risky manuever if the debt is issued prior to the vote and we don’t approve the tax measure.

  28. DownTown

    Sargents and LT’s are on the street patrolling. PSO’s are on the street patrolling. If any call for service that is “priority 1″ or a call that endangers life safety, the closest unit will respond – Motors, patrol, command officers, PSO etc..

    I have read this board for a long period of time. It is amazing how much disinformation that there is about the police department.

    As said earlier, most sworn officers are out on the streets every day. The ‘desk’ statistics are false.

    And if you count detectives, most ‘desk’ people are directly supporting patrol.

    If you ask me, we need even more ‘desk’ people. without them people go in the door of north county (the jail) and right back on the street.

  29. matt

    Again, we have a Meggan’s Law for sex offenders so why can’t we have a Parolee Law that says only so many parolees can live with in so many miles of each other? I know at the state level the voters won’t approve that, but maybe Oakland and other high density cities can unite and enact such laws at the city level and fight together if say Danville claims the law is unconstitutional…

  30. livegreen

    re. the Tax Anticipation Note, I’m guessing a short-term note to “securitize the future parcel tax revenue stream”, besides being risky, costs something. How much?

    Of course it’s probably a moot point as I’m doubtful the Parcel Taxes will pass (which really means something for this to happen in Oakland). But the CC will probably use the projection of it as a way to put-off decisions until another, non-election year.

  31. livegreen

    Further Q abt the Tax Anticipation Note (TAN): It is unclear to me whether this is part of the Parcel Tax ballot measure, or something the CC will approve separately?

    And if the latter, if Staff is recommending they approve the TAN only after the ballot measure is passed, or do it before? (now or in between)

    Because if they do it before & it doesn’t pass, they’d be on the hook for paying back any “note” (loan) + interest. The more time, the more interest.

    & if this is the case, shouldn’t Staff be informing the CC about potential interest costs to make an intelligent decision?

  32. Mary Hollis

    I could be wrong here but I thought TAN’s and RAN’s (Revenue Anticipation Note’s), while being very common, were generally only floated when it is known for a fact that such taxes and revenues will be incoming.

    So you could issue such notes to tide you over the end of a tax year as a form of bridging finance. And for that matter, you could securitize the future flows from any revenue source e.g. parking, tolls etc. It’s simply a form of borrowing from the future.

    A Note structured to securitize a stream of income that still requires voter approval seems speculative and presumptive, to say the least. But I’m sure the City Attorney and/or Controller will nod it through on some basis. and since most of the fiscal strategies involve kicking the can down the road in one form or another, I’m not sure how different this particular variants of it really is.

  33. Ken O

    the rich selling muni bonds… started in 2001, escalated in 2007-2008 and continues into the present.


    the writer supposes decline in rich people buying cities’ tax-exempt bonds (debt) is due to fears of default.

    similar feelings abound that US bonds will lose “AAA” rating soon — us treasury gnome tim “titanic” geithner said that will “never happen.” official denial often means unofficial confirmation of truth.

    @mary- mmm, borrowing from the future to fatten the present. so ubiquitous.

  34. len raphael

    what i’m seeing among wealthy clients is them switching out of US treasuries and corporate bonds, into dedicated muni bonds. eg. irrigation districts, water districts, airports, but no one is touching the non dedicated GO general obligation muni bonds. tax free rates are as high as the low 5′s. anyone know what oakland is used to paying on its bonds? wouldn’t think we have any dedicated sources of revenue left to hock except for future parcel/utily taxes.


  35. Mary Hollis


    Moody’s has Oakland’s Muni bonds at A1 while Standard & Poors has us at AA-. both these ratings are about average or maybe even a little above.

    CA laws affords a high degree of protection to bond repayments. Only education has a higher priority for payment. So at least in theory, most services would have to be shut down and starved of funds before the repayment stream from our bonds was halted.

    Of course all that assumes no bankruptcy, when it’s not unusual for bond holders to get back less than 100 cents on the dollar. and which of course explains those 5% plus tax-free yields. The Feds might bail us out if we were the only City or State going down, but chances are there’d be many others in that scenario.

    I’d tend to agree with you and go for agency and utility issues. As for the GO bonds, I did look into shorting them but they are hard to borrow and expensive to margin.

  36. livegreen

    Did the Special Budget Balancing meeting of April 1(V mentioned in her last budget post above) have any meaningful results, or was it part of the joke?