Play With Oakland Budget Challenge

Worth your time!  Take a few minutes and play with the Oakland Budget Challenge model, available online.  Through this model, you are able to make high-level cuts in department spending or select ways to increase tax revenues.

To close the $70.8 million budget gap in 2009-2010, you could maximize the choices and end up with a $3.1 million surplus.  Throw in the voter-approved increase in sales tax, however, and you see another $8 or $16 million surplus.  We wish it were that easy.

Oakland - Maxed Model

Some of the options don’t feel realistic, especially cuts to essential police or fire protection.  Yes, it’s possible to save $20 million here or there…but we think this feels like a Hobson’s choice:

Hobson’s choice (noun) – the choice of taking either that which is offered or nothing; the absence of a real alternative.  Origin:  1640-50; after Thomas Hobson (1544-1631), of Cambridge, England, who rented horses and gave his customer only one choice, that of the horse nearest the stable door.  (Random House)

We like the educational benefits. The budget model is a fun tool that’s simple to use.  You put in your preferences and see the gap closing along the way.  When you go back to change options, the differences are shown as well.

When complete, you see overall gap closure, major areas versus your plan, and even pie chart allocations.  I think all civic-minded Montclarions should try this model – and even your high school kids would learn something here.

Yet decisions are more difficult. By definition, this model is only a representation of Oakland’s budget challenges.  The choices are real, and decisions must be made by the City Council right now.

We wonder what’s underneath the hood overall, from line item expenses to cash flows.  Where are the cuts related to compensation, travel, health, profit sharing (pension) and other cross-departmental expenses?  How do the different departments compare, when looking at their expense mixes?

We know that a single model can’t do everything, and it needs to be simple for constituent appeal.  We hope the City Council representatives dive into the numbers a bit more thoroughly – it’s hard to tell from this far away.