In a city where children are randomly shot and many residents feel insecure in their neighborhoods and homes, public safety should be the top priority. But Oakland leaders must address the city's structurally shaky budget and billions of dollars of debt if they hope to keep cops on the beat.

Dwindling revenues, fiscal mismanagement and soaring benefit costs have driven the city to the financial edge. Roughly 22 percent of city jobs have been cut in the past decade. Sworn police staffing is down 12 percent from a decade ago, and 23 percent from the peak three years ago.

Meanwhile, city officials over the past decade buried the city in debt. Unfunded liabilities for employee pension and retiree health programs have reached $2.2 billion. That's 61/2 years of city payroll, excluding overtime. It works out to about $5,500 per resident. Paying that off will further strain budgets, but failure to do so will lead to deeper cuts later.

Many of the candidates running for five City Council seats talk of increasing police staff from the current 613 to 1,000. It's fantasy. To preserve even the law enforcement status quo, much less make modest increases, officials must ask which other services are essential and which can be jettisoned.

It's against that backdrop that we look for leaders who recognize the problem and hard decisions ahead:

At-large seat: Incumbent Rebecca Kaplan faces District 3 Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente. They're both smart and understand city finances well.

Unfortunately, De La Fuente opted to run for the at-large seat for political gain rather than seeking another term in his district. We would have gladly supported him for re-election to his current post. But we see no reason to throw out an incumbent we like to accommodate him. We're sticking with Kaplan.

District 1: Len Raphael and Craig Brandt best recognize the seriousness of the city's finances and the need for tough decisions. After years as a city watchdog, Raphael understands the complexities best. But we endorse Brandt because he has the better temperament to effect change.

District 3: Sean Sullivan, our pick from a solid field of candidates, is vice president for fundraising of a six-city program helping disadvantaged kids reach college. He understands city finances are precarious, leaders need to make tough decisions, and economic growth alone will not solve the problem.

District 5: Candidate Mario Juarez's personal financial problems leave us unwilling to trust him with Oakland's. Instead, we endorse Oakland School Board member Noel Gallo with some hesitation, respectful of his intellect but worried about his insistence that economic development will solve city budgetary woes. It won't.

District 7: Incumbent Larry Reid faces token challengers: Beverly Williams, who is unprepared for the job, and Sheryl Walton, who failed to show up for our meeting. We endorse Reid but urge him to be more realistic and become better informed about the city's huge debt and woeful finances.

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Go to www.insidebayarea.com/endorsements to see the latest list of recommendations for voters.