What are the core functions of a city?

Sitting around fighting about whether the police are paid too much (they are) and if they care about Oakland and its residents (they do) is not productive. Let’s try to move the conversation on this blog in a more useful direction.

At last week’s budget meeting, District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks suggested that it would be helpful, in determining how we should balance the budget, for the Council to step back and think about what the core functions of the City are. That is, go through each department, item by item, and decide what are the absolutely fundamental services the City is expected to provide.

Council President Jane Brunner had each Councilmember go around and list what they see as core functions, which wasn’t, well, terribly enlightening, because the discussion was so general, but for what it’s worth, here’s how that went. District 4 Councilmember Jean Quan listed libraries, recreation, and senior programs as the City’s core services, and noted that it’s important to look cumulatively at how residents will be impacted, not just by our cuts, but by those at the State level as well. She stressed that the City has a responsibility to look after the most vulnerable members of the community, particularly seniors, who will be particularly hard-hit by the State budget. She said she is not willing to eliminate the rangers, who patrol the City’s parks, from the police department.

District 5 Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente said that while public safety is the most important function the City provides, every department needs to share the pain, and he’s not prepared to shut down libraries to protect the police department from suffering any cuts. In order of importance, he listed police and fire as number one, followed by libraries, then recreation and senior centers, then maintaining streets and sidewalks and generally keeping the city clean, and called everything else “secondary.” District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan agreed, noting that she views recreation centers and libraries as part of providing public safety, and adding that she was uncomfortable with neglecting infrastructure maintenance to the point that it costs us more down the road in terms of repair. She also said that while some argue we shouldn’t spend money supporting cultural institutions, City money spent on cultural activities often leverages large outside sums.

District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel agreed that police and fire are core services, but said that that doesn’t necessarily mean everything in the police or fire departments are uncuttable, using the police helicopter as an example. She said City owned buildings were as important as streets and sidewalks in terms of maintenance, and disagreed with a suggestion put forth during public comment that the adult literacy program is not a core part of the library’s functions. Later, she added that anything focusing on environmental compliance and sustainable development should be considered core, because those departments keep us “future oriented” and on the “leading edge.” Okay.

Jane Brunner said that when identifying what’s core and what isn’t, it’s important to look at the critical functions of each department in terms of how they impact service delivery. Using the fire department as an example, she said she viewed the critical service as response to fire and medical calls, but noted that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s critical to have five people on a truck responding to a medical call. She added that senior centers and feeding the homeless are critical functions of the human services department, and that she, too, views recreation centers as part of public safety.

Desley Brooks said she was also not willing to cut the rangers, and felt it was essential to retain the neighborhood service coordinators. She stressed that any cuts need to be thoughtful, and noted that she would not be amenable to cutting the gang unit in the police department. At-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan preferred to address the question by looking at what isn’t core, asking how much police time gets spent responding to false alarms from home security systems. (This issue (PDF) was recently discussed by the Council’s Finance and Management Committee.) She agreed with Desley Brooks about the importance of the neighborhood services coordinators, saying they leverage a large number of volunteer hours from the community. She said the number of police officers we require for special events seems excessive, and should be reduced, and that any efforts around business and job attraction is a core function. She added that the Council should be careful not to cut any revenue generating positions.

So saying that police, fire, libraries, and parks are essential city services is kind of a no-brainer, and in that sense, the forty-five minutes the Council spent repeating it was somewhat of a waste of time. I mean, it’s not like anyone was going to be like “I think having lots of bureaucrats in City Hall is a core service.” So in hopes of making the exercise more productive, each Councilmember was assigned specific departments to look at in more detail, taking time to examine every function within that department through the lens of whether or not it was, in fact, an essential service.

I think this is a really good way to look at the budget. Realizing that even if the economy improves over the next two years, the City of Oakland is not going to be flush with extra cash any time in the forseeable future, it’s important that we identify what is absolutely necessary to provide, rather than simply making cuts willy-nilly.

I think it would be a good exercise for my readers as well. What do you view as the core functions of the City? What do you see as expendable? I’m not talking about employee pay – yes, compensation must be, and will be cut, but beyond that, we still don’t have enough money to do everything we want to do. So what programs are absolutely vital to your experience of living somewhere, and what programs are simply nice to have when we can afford them?

To get a sense of what functions are contained within different departments, I’ve posted the Mayor’s proposed budget, broken up by department, below. (All files are PDF.) Obviously, most people will not have time to sit and read through all of them. But I encourage everybody to pick just one and take some time to look at it. Examining what we spend money on, what brings money in, how staffing and budgets have changed over the recent years – it’s a good learning experience. I look forward to reading your comments.

50 thoughts on “What are the core functions of a city?

  1. Patrick

    It’s easy to agree that most everything can be considered “core”, depending upon your point of view. That said, I would probably move facilities and road maintenance higher up the list, along with keeping our city clean. Pothole-ridden roads stewn with trash don’t make an inviting first impression; they say to residents and businesses (and potential residents and businesses): we don’t care. And lack of sanitation can breed health issues.

    Also, as much as I rely on the library and as much as I love our parks (I’m dreading to see what happens to Morcom after the next round of cuts) and rec. centers, these are not used by everyone. Police, fire, roads, sewers, etc. are of direct benefit to every citizen…when I moved in to my new home, my next door neighbor (who has lived in her house for 18 years) didn’t even know the location of our local library.

    I guess I’m suggesting there are two levels of core: items that are an absolute necessity, like police, and items that are so important we can’t imagine living without them (but could if we had to), like parks.

    Calling recreational centers necessary for public safety is more Measure OO blackmail.

  2. MarleenLee

    I can’t help but think – shouldn’t they have been having this conversation well over a year ago?? This seems so desperately preliminary, I am just appalled. I also think that having a discussion about what services are “core” is overly simplistic. How about looking at how many people need to be providing the services that are provided? Shouldn’t this analysis be well on the way to completion by now? Somebody told me recently we have over 200 people in the Financy and Management Agency. All those people, and somehow we still can’t manage to be kept from the brink of bankruptcy? What are all these people doing? Jean Quan, my council member, didn’t even mention police? Senior programs are more important than the police? This woman wants to run for mayor? The mind boggles.

  3. Helen

    It’s interesting that no one has mentioned planning. I consider that a core service. It may be invisible to us — until we need it.

  4. TheBoss

    I mean, the problem is that it’s largely not the case that the city is spending a bunch of money on non-core functions. Sure, there is fat that can be cut, but that’s not the problem.

    As discussed repeatedly, the problem is that we pay too much for our core functions.

    So, I view this exercise as largely a waste of time and just a diversion from the real issue. Why don’t they just go back and push for real cuts in pay? That’s what’s needed, not decreases in services.

  5. dbackman

    I don’t accept the notion that some departments are in the core and some departments are not. Each department has its own core that must be preserved no matter how deep the cuts. If the city dismantles the basic support structure for any city service then we will all pay for it in the long term.
    For example, if we allow our parks to crumble now, it will be a lot more difficult to revive them in the future. The parks won’t go away, they will simply become liabilities for the city. And then when we decide that we care about parks again, the basic infrastructure needed to support this function will be gutted and difficult to build back up again.
    Each department will need to cut back to a varying degree. And sure, the city will be less impacted by cuts to parks than to police. But the city needs to take a nuanced approach that results in reduced, but more efficient functions. Broad stroke comparisons between departments don’t really get us anywhere.
    I do agree with you though, Patrick, that facilities and road maintenance need to be much higher up the list.

  6. Karen Smulevitz

    Besides identifying what are core services ( fire, police, infrastructure maintenance, streets and sidewalks), each department should be examined within for projects and and extras that could be suspended during the crisis. Catering food and beverages at meetings, outreach at a time of limited sevices, consultants, any item that doesn’t directly forward the city’s mission. Every budget of every office needs to be reduced. If I had to choose between servicing a fire engine and putting on an art exhibit, I would say take care of the truck, my friends and I will have our art if we have to pass the hat ourselves. Some offices, as that of the mayor, are loaded with fat. Council members should share staff resources and give up frills. Put the assistance center online and a recorded phone system ala 238-DRUG. Encourage each citizen to think about what city services are useful to him or her, and to volunteer in that area if at all possible.
    Maintain the outline of what an ideal city structure should be, so that services may be reinstated when that great day of prosperity dawns again.

  7. Ralph

    Maybe they should have phrased the question differently – what is the mission of the city and what are the core services and functions required to fullfill that mission.

  8. Mike d'Ocla

    This is a great topic to explore. But I think there is another aspect to it that has been ignored until Karen’s post that “each department should be examined within for projects and and extras that could be suspended during the crisis.”

    Another way of saying this is that we need to identify what each department does and can do effectively and consider suspending what that department doesn’t and can’t do effectively.

    I also like Karen’s “Encourage each citizen to think about what city services are useful to him or her, and to volunteer in that area if at all possible.”

    Thinking along these lines might lead to some surprising results. For example, nearly everyone puts maintaining police services high on the priority list. But we know that the OPD at present is incapable of preventing or responding promptly to a wide variety of problems, including gang-related murders and household burglaries. The OPD is also incapable of preventing the illegal use of drugs i.e. being effective in the “War on Drugs.”

    I suspect, on the other hand, that the OPD could, by doing a lot of foot patroling, keep commercial districts safe for shoppers, restaurant-goers, etc. The OPD can, no doubt, intervene effectively in domestic violence complaints. The OPD can probably effectively enforce vehicle codes to protect pedestrians and bicyclists, maybe even clamping down on loud exhausts, ba-boomer cars and people driving while talking or texting on their cellphones.

    Just a thought.

  9. Frankie D

    First of all the City shouldn’t be doing anything with the voters tax dollars that isnt core to …. running the city. If things are being funded that are superfluous to this cause or departments to bloated they should never have been budgeted to begin with, hiring all the “Big E’s”, extended kin is a prime example. Making this assumption, Rebecca Kaplan seems to have the most logical approach. What isnt core to the current operations? I say where can we cut the fat and make each vital operation leaner and meaner. This exercise should be done annually regardless of the economic climate. Any organization with an ounce of fiscal credibility does this. But this is what happens when you have an elected council where the majority have been in office toooooo looooong, they run out of ideas and we end up with the mess we got. That said, I will do my civic duty and follow through with this exercise as best I can and give my additional two cents later. Thank you for this service V.

  10. Bjorn Tipling

    I don’t think politicians should dictate how many people need to be on an emergency vehicle. They’re not experts at that. What they should do is determine budgets for organizations and let them make the specific cuts. If the budget decreases 5% then all budgets should probably decrease by 5%. Why is this so hard?

  11. Chris Kidd

    I know it’s not much, but the City Council should surrender all pay-go funds whenever the city runs a deficit. Maybe it’ll give them more incentive to run a tight ship.

  12. Robert

    If we are talking core functions, public safety, and some of public works. Library? nice to have, and I would hate to see it go, but core? There are other information sources these days, and even other libraries in surrounding cities. It would have a disproportionate impact on certain groups, but that alone does not seem to me to qualify as core.

    And trying to justify Parks and Rec as public safety? BS.

    As KS noted, this needs to be done on a project basis, and some projects need to be scrapped totally. And outside the core public safety areas, everything else will need to be cut back.

    Many businesses run on a zero based budgeting model. Where each project is evaluated every year to see if it still meets the needs of the company, and how it compares to other projects. Those that don’t make the grade are cut or slowed down. Oakland has got to do the same. Of couse to do this, the mission of the city would have to be defined, and oddly enough, that mission is nowhere in the charter. Based on the charter, the city exists just to exist. Which could explain much about how it is run.

  13. Notcom

    At the risk of singling out one person – and since I wasn’t at the meeting, I don’t know if it’s approriate or not to single out one person – I find it not at all “okay” that someone would seriously suggest:

    “anything focusing on environmental compliance and sustainable development should be considered core, because those departments keep us “future oriented” and on the “leading edge”

    WTF, people ? “Core function” vauation means: someone gives you , say, $200/ mo, what are you going to spend it on ? Answer: food (of course)… if something is left over, maybe a place to sleep, a bath, etc. These solons seem to be thinking along the lines of: gee, I’ll need a cell phone, and fast-food isn’t healthy, so I’ll need organic veggies….

    Maybe the most expendable agency in the all of city government is the Council itself (?)

  14. oakie

    “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

    Only one thing there that applies to city government’s responsibility: ensure domestic tranquility.

    Police and fire.

    Then, on the other end, I’d cut mayor and council compensation in half, “discretionary” council member (slush) funds to zero, expense accounts to zero. That’s the easy part. No one is obligated to run for and hold office.

    That was easy.

  15. Eric

    Great challenge, V. Thanks for providing the resources for us to play City Council. My first thought was to list departments according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – police & fire most important (safety), and libraries, museums, and parks & recreation least important (self-actualization). Since I put parks & rec at the bottom of the list, I took a look at the budget you provided for them, and realized I’m an idiot. The first thing that caught my eye was the aquatics – boating program. I’m an avid sailor, but this looked like just the kind of wasteful program the city should eliminate immediately. Cost – $344k. Then I noticed that it brings in $300k in revenue. Raise prices 15% and it breaks even, raise them 20% and it makes money. Privatize this and let some entrepreneur build the program and it could be a nice money maker.

    Central reservations, on the other hand, I would have expected to be quite profitable, but it barely covers it’s costs – $720k in revenue, $615k in expenditures. Maybe the revenue shows up somewhere else, but if not this is disappointing. Might as well not bother with reservations if they can’t do better than this.

    After looking at the actual parks and rec budget, I would still keep the prioritization of departments the same, but I will no longer generalize and say we should eliminate parks and rec. Some parts of it make money or have the potential to make money. Others, like after school programs have benefits that outweigh the costs – $1.43 million, or about $3.57 per resident per year. Central administration, central reservations, and contract management, which I would consider to be the equivalent of overhead and administrative in a business, are about a quarter of the budget (~ $5 million out of a ~ $21 million budget) – not terrible. At a cost of ~ $50 per resident per year, it actually seems like a pretty good deal. I pay ~ $60 a month to run around the track at the YMCA when it rains. $50 a year to run around Lake Merritt is a bargain.

    So that’s my homework for today. Conclusion – this city council thing is harder than it looks. I wasn’t able to save the city by shutting down parks & rec.

  16. Patrick

    One more thing – re-open the city jail (or at least part of it as a holding facility). This is core for a city our size and with our crime rate. Cops are wasting too much time bringing offenders to Santa Rita jail, 28 miles from headquarters. Why not hold them here and bring a couple of day’s catch in all at once? The $3 million we supposedly “saved” by closing the jail probably costs us $6 million a year in overtime and $12 million in unfunded future pension payouts.

  17. We Fight Blight

    Core Services:

    Police and Fire. We all have a basic need to be safe in our communities. If we cannot feel safe in our community and if our community continues to be one of the most dangerous in the United States, then why will tourists, people and other revenue generating businesses locate, shop and recreate in Oakland? If people perceive Oakland to be unsafe the value of homes in Oakland will continue to be depressed and homes may not turn over as rapidly, thereby affecting both property taxes and transfer taxes.

    Infrastructure Repair, Maintenance and Improvement: Necessary for the efficient and effective movement of goods, services and people and necessary to attract revenue generating businesses to Oakland. This includes maintaining existing parks and buildings, if only in a mothball status.

    Revenue Generating Enterprises: Economic development, redevelopment (though it has different funding sources), business generation, facade improvements and streetscape improvements. If we do not invest in public improvements and provide incentives for business to locate in Oakland they will choose other communities and Oakland will forego the opportunity to attract new revenue generating businesses.

    City Planning : Effective planning for the City is necessary to attract revenue generating businesses and mixed use developments that take advantage of Oaklands transportation infastructure. These are tax paying enterprises.

    Blight Enforcement and Remediation: If the City looks ugly and dangerous with rundown houses and business tagged with gang graffiti why will any revenue generating businesses and new residents want to locate to Oakland? Blight’s high cost to the City is staggering in terms of foregone tax revenue.

    Oakland City services are supported by property taxes, transfer taxes, sales taxes, business license taxes, and hotel taxes, among others. If we do no create a safe, pleasant environment in which to live, recreate and do business and if we do not provide incentives for businesses and residents to locate in Oakland, we will never maintain stable revenue streams to support all of the core city services as well as libraries, parks, boating programs, social services and the myriad of programs that people think are core City services.

    The problem with the City of Oakland is revenue and an overpaid, bloated bureacracy. Across the board budget cuts are like taking a shotgun to the budget mess. It only makes it uglier. A focus on limited, and I do mean limited core services that emphasizes revenue generation, is necessary to right this ship. That means eliminating all other services and the attendant bureaucracy until such time that we have sufficient revenues to start re-opening libraries, parks, senior centers and other services. Core means absolutely must have. Not every function of Oakland City Government is absolutely must have.

    Local Government was never intended to provide a wide array of social services. It was conceived to provide public safety, infrastructure, city planning and education (through school districts). Local government has neither the means nor wherewithall to be a social service provider.

  18. len

    broad brush, which city positions are covered by which unions? would think that even if our officials were willing to be “unfair” and make selective cuts the bigger unions would have to fight for non selective cuts because selective cuts pit different workers against each other. that would weaken union solidarity.

    at best (or maybe worst) we lay off the employees with the least seniority. if we had any reserves, we’d offer early retirement deals. maybe calpers can figure out a way to finance that for the entire state muni govt. hmm, guess that wb weakening calpers further.

    anyone know how the various no security unions are responding? wasn’t one of them coming up with their own cost budget proposal?

  19. len

    Rbt, John Shirley’s cypberpunk City Come A-Walkin captures that sense that our city government acts on the prime directive to feed itself. perfectly understandable how it got that way, but the cure is going to be years of pain. poor Oakland, it gets so close to greatness, and then falls back…

  20. Robert

    len, all govt exists primarily to perpetuate itself. O’s just seems to be less effective in spinning off benefits to citizens while engaged in it’s primary purpose.

  21. Naomi Schiff

    General Budget is only part of the city’s budget. The big redevelopment budget, may be subject to additional state government thefts, but currently funds some departments substantially. So, most of planning, zoning, much of public works and other capital improvements are funded under redevelopment. To see the whole picture we have to look at both.

    Parks and Rec is only 3% (soon to be less) of the general budget, and libraries another 3%. Of the two, libraries benefits from our generous revenue measure Q, and Q mandates a minimum general fund contribution. If you cut it below that minimum, you lose the measure Q assessment.
    Parks and Rec doesn’t have such a nice source of additional support, in part because of the failure of the badly constructed LLAD effort of last fall. So Parks is pretty vulnerable, and the already skeletal staff (cut many times before) is really going to be ridiculously small for the size of our city and its public acreage. On the other hand, we are getting capital improvement money from a parks bond that EB Regional Parks passed, with the weird result that we will get improvements to the rose garden, but won’t have enough staffing for good maintenance.

    The recurring funding cuts to parks is quite damaging to the city, and adds to the general aura of seeming rundown and crime prone. I personally think investing in parks and rec is well worth it, and probably generates income indirectly as well. This department was once nationally known and is now a shadow of its former self. I don’t think it helps attract new development to have public amenities in poor condition. (Think about the gardens and parks of Paris or London.)

  22. Christopher

    I expect that “representative democracy” by out-of-touch incumbents will be replaced with some “wiki-powered internet” direct democracy. I sometimes wonder if our representatives have even read the US Constitution or asked themselves, “why do we have government?”

    But I am optimistic California (and with luck Oakland) will emerge from these tough times by examining our basic values and expectations of our city, state, and federal governments’ core services.

  23. Oh Pleeze

    1. Public Safety–police, fire, EMT. If something goes wrong, we all need help.
    2. Infrastructure–do the street and traffic lights turn on, does the water run, are the sewers intact, can you drive down the street without being sucked into a pothole, are public buildings and facilities (including parks) being maintained [I for one, am fed up with paying for new buildings and a new library when there are old municipal buildings that have been closed up and allowed to crumble into rack and ruin)
    3. Education/Literacy. That’s schools AND libraries. Our schools limit education to kids; libraries close that gap

    That’s core for me. That being said, it doesn’t mean everything else has to go away, or that the core functions can’t be re-investigated.

    What’s ‘s horrifying is that our city council appears to just now–days before the budget is due–be learning how to prepare a budget.

  24. len

    Found: one city mission statement:

    I. Introduction
    A. City of Oakland Mission Statement
    The City of Oakland is committed to the delivery of effective, courteous, and
    responsive services. Citizens and employees are treated with fairness, dignity and
    Civic and employee pride are accomplished through constant pursuit of excellence
    and a work force that values and reflects the diversity of the Oakland community.


  25. Robert

    My congrats on findng a mission statement. I am glad to know that Oakland is courteous in whatever the heck is is that they do.

  26. Ralph

    thanks len…i have a couple of problems with that stmt. first, it really is more a hiring guideline (is the prospective employee friendly, have they demonstrated that they are courteous and responsive) and second the above mission statement does not contain the elements of a good mission stmt.: who is the city serving, it lacks any real purpose, and you have absolutely know way of knowing what the city is offering. as is oakland’s mission stmt does not translate easily into any identifying any real services to meet its stated goal.

    i think RK was on a good path with her questioning. but if oakland’s mgmt were to first think of what they want to provide and to whom then they could better address what services they need to provide and which ones they need to cut.

    i would think that the city would be creating and fostering an environment which empowers its residents and businesses to develop and grow (or something along those lines).

    What do you need for this to happen: public safety, gap services (public health, employment services), yada, yada, yada .

  27. JAMMI

    It has always been a mystery to me why government repeatedly and consistently needs more money, higher taxes, additional fee income, when service levels seem to decline just as consistently. Many taxes (sales, income) are based on percentages, so revenues should automatically increase as prices and wages increase. Why isn’t that enough?

    In Oakland’s case, I think I have found a whiff of one answer in a book published in 1973 (“Implementation” by Pressman & Wildavsky). While the book itself is of interest as a study of failed redevelopment efforts in Oakland, relevant to the current topic is this brief nugget on page 17: “. . . the entire city council is served by just one secretary, who answers the phone, arranges appointments, types letters, and administrates. . . The mayor is not much better off, with one administrative assistant and three secretaries.”

    Today the City Council enjoys 35.5 FTE and the Mayor’s office boasts 21 FTE. Can anyone affirm that today’s Council accomplishes 35 times what the Council did in 1973? That our Mayor is four times as effective as Mayor Reading was? Please raise your hand.

  28. V Smoothe Post author

    Since those FTE include the Councilmembers themselves, the total in 1973 would have been 9, not 1, so staffing has multiplied not by 35, but by 4. Setting that aside, however, the whole point of that passage in the book is that neither the City Council nor the Mayor in Oakland is equipped by the City to do their jobs properly or effectively. Recall the concluding line: For an elected public official in Oakland who wishes to exercise leadership, the built-in obstacles are enormous.

  29. JAMMI

    So do the Council and the Mayor, with their current additional resources, now perform their jobs effectively, and exercise leadership? Is the current staffing level therefore justified?

  30. Ken

    Jamii, i’d say the current staffing level IS justified.

    If you want your elected leaders to be effective, give them staff to carry out the work. Otherwise you have all cooks and no sous chefs or chaiwalas.

    What’s changed between 1970s and 2009?

    * wages stagnated, jobs (making things of value) in Oakland or the east bay region were exported to China, India, Brazil, Eastern Central Europe, Korea, Thailand, Philippines, Spain, etc… so fewer Oaklanders and east bayers have opptys for “gainful employment”, cuts city sales tax revenue
    * federal reserve prints more money each year…making each dollar buy less
    * more Oaklanders living in public housing (OHA, what’s their budget? $99/month rents hello!)
    * we lost employment at the Army Base (10,000 jobs? or 5,000?)
    * police: we had a seemingly completely ineffective police chief for the last five years
    * energy costs have gone up substantially: fuel for police/fire/city vehicles, as well as building energy (maybe ask PE Scott Wentworth and police financials guy Peter about that)
    * prop13 massively cut property tax revenue to the state to disburse back to cities

    all of these have had WAY more impact than increasing political leaders’ staff counts. i leave it to people with more time to break out where costs increased at a faster rate…

  31. V Smoothe Post author

    As with any other job, it varies depending on the individual Councilmember. Some are quite effective, others are less so, others are not at all. But I have no problem with the current staffing levels, and in fact, would be strongly opposed to reducing them. Without adequate resources, you can expect a competent performance from nobody. With adequate resources, you can expect competent performance from the competent and incompetent performance from the incompetent. The solution, if you don’t think a Councilmember does a good job, is not to eliminate their staff, it’s to elect a new Councilmember.

  32. Kipper

    I understand your attempt at simplicity (“Sitting around fighting about whether the police are paid too much (they are)…” to prove your point of futility, but I fear you have over-reached on the wrong subject. “Too much” is entirely subjective. Unfortunately, even with the handsome salaries and benefits the job affords its employees, Oakland can not find or retain quality officers to meet or exceed hiring and loses a significant number of officers each year to lower paying agencies. Why? Because, to put it simply, Oakland requires more from its officers than other municipalities. Put out the following job description and see how many of you would want to apply:

    1) Well paid position; excellent benefits
    2) Significant chance of injury (minor, moderate, career ending and/or life threatening, death)
    3) Life and family disturbing shift work (12 hour shifts plus mandatory overtime as shift requires…regardless of your needs) Bonus- required holiday shifts means less time with those pesky families year after year.
    4) Increased rates of substance abuse and suicide
    5) Daily exposure to humanity’s evils.
    6) Average life expectancy after retirement – 56 years.

  33. len

    K, explain item (6) life expectancy and where you got your data, etc.

    also, how many transfers out to lower paying police depts did we get over the last 5 years? and by lower paying, my impression is that maybe cops took 5% pay cuts to work in a much much lower stress dept, but not 20%

  34. Robert

    Ken, and others, I wish folks would quit using the Prop 13 bogeyman as an explanation for Oakland’s budget problems. I am no fan of Prop 13 because of how it has distorted who pays taxes, but it has actually failed in its supposed goal of controlling government spending. Looking just at Oakland’s budget, inflation adjusted (constant 2007 dollars) per resident spending has gone up 2.8 fold from 1970 to 2007 ($908 to $2522). If you take the baseline of 1980 (post Prop 13) spending per resident has increased 2.1 fold. General fund spending has gone up 35% since 1980, in spite of using restricted funds (measure Y, LLAD, etc.) to pay for things that used to come out of the general fund. General fund spending has increased 21% from 2000 to 2007 alone. So let’s not blame Prop 13 for our problems, but look at the spending side of things. Oakland has found other sources of revenue to make up for the restrictions caused by Prop 13.

    Interestingly enough the budget did not grow significantly between 1991 and 2000, either total or general fund.

    [All numbers were adjusted for CPI and for the number of residents in the city. A separate category for general funds from total funds did not exist in the budget for decades prior to 1980, so only total budget numbers are available.]

  35. Ralph

    len, the 56 (although I see 57) is an oft-cited but hard to find attributable statistic re law enforcement life expectancy. i’ve tried to find it with Society of Actuaries but no dice.

    the reduced life span is a function of the stress from the job itself and the stress resulting from the toll it takes on family life.

  36. Kipper

    Couldn’t verify the stat w/out browsing the source, but found reference:

    “In the United States, two-thirds of officers involved in shootings suffer moderate or severeproblems and about 70 percent leave the force within seven years of the incident. Police are admitted to hospitals at significantly higher rates than the general population and rank third among occupations in premature death rates.

    *Sewell, J.D., Ellison, K.W. & Hurrell, J.J. (1988). Stress management in law enforcement: Where do we go from here? The Police Chief, October, pp. 94-98.

  37. len

    not to belittle the stress of the job, isn’t it a very low percentage of oakland cops who fire their guns in line of duty over their entire careers?

    -len raphael

  38. Ralph

    len, it is true for almost all law enforcement officers that the incidence of firing while on duty is low, but the number of stressful situations, which includes situations where the gun is not drawn, is high.

  39. Tony

    I don’t have any stats, but I did know this one former Oakland Police Officer who was in the process of getting a psychology degree with which he was going to use to help other Oakland cops with their issues. He mentioned that it’s quite common for cops under that level of stress to have domestic problems of their own when they get home.

  40. len

    very high divorce rate i’d expect. probably increased by opd more recent scheduling.

    but early mortality overall?

  41. Ralph

    len, here is a link to an actual study which shows an average age at death of 66. I skimmed the article but it is clear that the stressors of the job contribute to behaviors that lead to premature death.


    again the 56/57 is an oft used age but i haven’t seen what supports it.

    just out of curiosity, why do you seem skeptical of this premature death?

  42. len

    partly curious whether the projections for cost of retirement medical/dental benefits (i’m assuming it’s pay as you go as it is for the other city employees, which might be incorrect) use the 56, 66 or something higher.

    but mostly if there is a very premature likely age of death, i’d say either we have to make staffing changes or increase their compensation or buy some kind of insurance policies for them.

    but my skepticism comes from an extremely skewed sample of military combat officer rank vets. where it seems that the ones who got past age say 35, live out a normal life span. no, i haven’t looked for any stats on this.

  43. Ralph

    while i haven’t done much research in this area, while trying to validate the age, i came across information which led me to believe that the people responsible for managing public employee retirement funds use 2 actuarial tables. One table s for the overall civilian pop. the second is for law enforcement personnel.

    not sure if their is any need to address staffing needs as the deaths are coming post retirement. what would hte insurance be used for?

  44. David

    You need to adjust the mortality rates for smoking (in cops, twice as high as general population) and drinking, along with, probably most importantly, premature death due to suicide.

  45. KenO

    Oakland is just another speck of light in the nebula of what some people call “complex systems.”

    It’s a city based on industrial civilization.

    We’re leaving that phase of human existence.


    * NASA ending space shuttle program, laying off 28,000 people in Broward County, Florida
    * People downshifting from SUVs to Civics, Civics to Mopeds, Mopeds to bicycles
    * People cramming in tighter into living spaces: house to apartment, more bodies per apartment, moving in with kids or moving in with parents
    * Buying less consumer crap 90% of which ended up in the dump 6 months later anyway
    * Using less electricity

    The city needs to become far less complex. By choice or forced to, it will happen. The city’s budget will shrink every year it still exists… which means we’ll see ever more corruption and bribes to get services, regulatory compliance, avoid penalties…

    I can forsee the day when City of Oakland breaks down into smaller, more manageable towns led by “big men” — the way life was in the late 1800s/ early 1900s.