Michigan Education Finance Study

I was reading the just released Augenblick, Palaich & Associates (APA) report titled, Michigan Education Finance Study, commissioned to them by the Michigan Department of Treasury.   The report suggests that there is inadequacy in funding to Michigan Public Schools.

Really?

My first thought was, “We needed to pay $399,000 of taxpayer money to have somebody from Colorado tell us this in a 224 page report?” That’s $1,781 per page!  This subject has been researched and talked about for years.

So I sent a note to my longtime friend, Eric Lupher, Executive Director of the Citizen’s Research Council of Michigan, a non-profit, non-partisan, 100-year-old think tank, probably the best think tank there is, and I asked him for his opinion.

The reply I received was so special I have to share it with you. As you know, Munetrix tries to put complicated government “things” into a context anybody can understand, and Eric just trumped us with his simplicity to my question about the APA report.

“Think of it (the APA Report) like getting a diagnosis for your car.  You know it isn’t working right. It’s making a strange noise, but you don’t know what’s causing the noise.  You’ve just paid the mechanic certified in automotive technology to figure out the root of the problem.  Now, we as a state have to decide whether we want to pay to get the problem fixed or if we can live with the annoying noise the system is making.  The system functions, but not in an optim148785_503602589682411_301510673_nal way.  We know that more money, better directed, can improve the performance.  But that costs money.  Are we content to eat out a few less times each week?  To live without cable for a while?

You could have trusted your neighbor (someone inside the state) to diagnose the problem, but your wife would dismiss the diagnosis because the neighbor isn’t certified and probably has preconceived notions about the problem.  So you go to an outsider, APA in this case, for the diagnosis.”

Capiche?

Eric Lupher, Executive Director – Citizens Research Council of Michigan

 

Mr. Lupher – I couldn’t have gotten this one any better than that. I, and anyone else who reads this, thank you for your succinct, analogous explanation.

Bob Kittle, President & CEO, Munetrix LLC

Why do virtual academies get the same per-student funding as traditional brick and mortar schools?

Along with my business partner, Buzz Brown, I spend a great deal of time each day mired in Michigan local government and school district data and often ask myself questions about the information the data provides. For example, on the hot-button topic of school funding, the state provides equal state reimbursement for students who attend a virtual school, versus a traditional K12 or charter school.  Why?  Is this trend filling the coffers of for-profit virtual schools while draining much needed funds from traditional schools?

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Can Open Checkbooks Promote Transparency In Local Governments and Prevent Theft?

The recent news in the Oakland Press about the City of Oak Park’s former clerk siphoning $433,000 out of the city’s coffers over a 2-year period made me think … would a higher level of transparency by the city have been able to thwart such an incident?

Within the Munetrix toolbox is a Dynamic Check Register that takes the transparency discussion to the next level.  Local governments have the ability to export their vendor accounts payable files directly from their accounting software into a publicly accessible, searchable database.  Some refer to this as “Open Checkbook” but it by itself is only a fraction what it takes to truly be transparent.

Mug Shot of Former Deputy City Clerk If such a system were in place at Oak Park, is it possible a citizen, employee or other interested party would have noticed some red flags and raised their hand to inquire?   The alleged crime included 54 separate payments over a two-year period. Wouldn’t someone have recognized a mounting series of “payables” to an individual with the same last name as the clerk?  Taking the argument one step further, is it also possible that if the clerk knew this sort of information was readily available and transparent to the public, she would have had second thoughts about even trying it in the first place?

There are no guarantees of course, but someone who wants to try and beat the system would have to work a lot harder than the clerk in Oak Park allegedly did. My guess is that a large percentage of those who would even think of such a dastardly deed would be discouraged from acting on it when check registers are built right into a city’s transparency system.

Transparency – probably one of the most overused and ill-defined words in today’s vocabulary has many benefits when talking about sharing information at the state and local government levels in particular.

For the minimal cost it takes to be transparent, an ROI is guaranteed. In the case of Oak Park – hundreds of thousands of dollars could potentially have been saved.  For other municipalities, a good transparency solution can greatly reduce the amount of time spent on FOIA requests – saving them and the citizens asking for information both time and money.

Just saying.

Of course, there are no silver bullets – but we have to start somewhere.  And it has to start with accessibility to the information behind the data. Static documents and PDFs are not viable solutions for transparency anymore.  Let’s turn data into information, which is what Munetrix does.

Bob Kittle

Police: Tough and Smart

As Mayor Pro-tem for the City of Auburn Hills, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to address the men and women in uniform at the Annual Police Department Awards Banquet Dinner.  Below are my my remarks.  

I’m honored to have the opportunity to share in this important function with you and your families tonight. I’ll work to keep my comments to a minimum.  When I tried to think up words that best describe my view of what it means to be a police officer, I came up with the following list:

  • Hard Working
  • Smart
  • Caringpolice-hat
  • Transparent
  • Ethical
  • Dedicated

I’m sure I missed a couple, but I’ll take a couple minutes to share how I correlate each of those to your public servitude.

Hard Working

I don’t think many realize the toll all the training, preparation, long hours, crazy schedules and what the tireless pursuit of “Protect & Serve” actually means from a physical and mental standpoint. Your jobs are not “easy” by any stretch.

Smart

I think some people believe cops are a bunch of meatheads. Most don’t realize how smart you have to be to be a cop! I do. Short story. I was a security guard at the Warren Tank Arsenal for a couple summers (when I was a baby). With that and a couple years of college under my belt, I decided to take the police entrance exam. I wanted to be a cop!! I remember chasing a bad guy into a building, turning right, going up stairs, turning again, doubling back, going down several flights turning, turning, up and down, and then I bolted out a back door into the bright sunlight and was asked, “Which direction were you facing when you exited the building?”

Are you kidding me? I don’t know what direction I was heading when I entered the building. What kind of unfair question is that? I wanted to know where the oxygen was. I was exhausted!

Well I flunked – and the citizens of Auburn Hills can sleep better at night knowing my “dream” ended abruptly.

Caring

Ironically, I participated in a Webcast today on Crisis Management. Lt. Mike Ceperley, the Emergency Management Coordinator from Northwest Missouri State University said, “There were two types of cops

  • those who just knew they were meant to be a police officer, having a selfless desire to serve and help people because they CARED, and
  • those who didn’t know what they wanted to do and figured they be a cop.

Transparent

I like to say Transparent (or Transparency) is the most oft used and ill-defined word in use today, so I will preface my comments on Transparency – being defined as, “Invisible.”

A driver doesn’t get in a car and think about whether the seatbelt will work in a crash. They don’t have to maintain it – so drivers just expect it to work IF they are unfortunate enough to get in a crash.

I liken Public Safety to being Transparent in much the same way.

Citizens do not have to physically see officers running around and being busy – they just expect to be safe. As long as they are not getting mugged, their homes aren’t getting broken into or they are not getting run over by speeding motorists, they ASSUME the police department is doing a good job. They don’t know (or maybe even care) what goes on behind the scenes.

That’s how I define Transparency in the case of policing.

Ethical (or Ethics)

Maybe I’ll just use, “Beyond Reproach.”   No matter what, Police Officers must put all others in first position, and themselves – usually last.  This probably makes the family sacrifice painful, for which people like me – as a resident and city councilman – are eternally grateful.

My hat is off to all of you – - but especially the wives, husbands and children. Somehow, you find a way to make it work.

Dedicated

With all the media focus on a handful of bad (or very bad) incidents of late, it seems the public’s view of police officers has turned.  Cowboys? Lack of Trust? Who knows what’s going through people’s minds quite frankly. But I guarantee people are paying more attention when they see police around. I even overheard a man at a restaurant say, “don’t worry, they’ll just shoot them” when a disturbance was happening outside. Holy cow!

You must all continue to stand tall!

Police Chief Olko described it best at a city council workshop on body cameras a couple weeks ago when she said the difference with our force is the exhaustive training.

That makes sense to me – and I agree.

You, ladies and gentlemen are good – VERY GOOD – at what you do.

The diligence you must possess is amazing. You never know what is going to come at you – case in point – Mississippi last weekend. My fear is that some whack jobs are going to try and be martyrs – nothing to live for – or looking for a pot of gold – - or 5 minutes of fame on You-tube!

I sure hope not….and I’m glad you have to make those decisions and not me. Heck – remember – I don’t even know which direction I’m facing.

So regardless of what you hear about me personally, my opinions, or what I say or don’t, let me close by saying –

I am grateful for all you do; the rest of city council is grateful for all you do; but most importantly, the citizens are grateful for what you do – - whether they SEE you or not!

Data, or Information

The digital age has made an abundance of data available to “consumers” but it begs the question, “What information does it provide us?”

I recently sat through a presentation on Traffic Crash Results for a local government.  As part of the presentation, there was a comparison of two neighboring communities, one with 22,600 crashes and the other with 22,100 (data). I didn’t know if the lower number was better, or not.

What was missing was the ability to put the numbers into context. How many residents did each local government serve? What was the number of lane miles or geographic square miles each had. And what was the cost associated with this segment of the public safety budget patrolling these assets (data).

The information that could be generated from this raw data could be quite useful.  For instance:

  • What is the ratio of crashes to citizens?
  • What is the ratio of crashes to lane miles served?
  • What is the cost per lane mile served, or per incident?

This type of information can then be used to help understand whether the utilization of resources is effective, and it allows for comparison against others including benchmarks.  If the service delivery (in this case Public Safety) shows exceptional results, it should be bragged about.

If there is room for improvement, both data and information can be used to develop plans to foster the desired improvement. This is the concept Munetrix fosters in its solution to transparency – and we continue to look for and add relevant metrics that help provide information.

Everybody talks about making data driven decisions these days – but is it the data or the information data provides that gives us the tools to ask the right questions – and ultimately make intelligent decisions?

Just thinking…

Bob Kittle

Local Government Early Warning Indicators

There is no shortage of articles and white papers addressing the topic of “Local Government Early Warning Indicators.” However, very few offer a concise methodology to address the issue; and most don’t draw any meaningful recommendations to address the dynamics local governments face in today’s new normal.

According to an Alison Wiltshire paper, Developing Early Warning Systems: A Checklist, there are four elements of a people-centered Early Warning System. Why people-centered? Because the average person must be able to grasp the concepts of the message heeded. Mathematicians, researchers and academics are not the ones who will be dealing with a fiscal calamity as it unfolds. The concept of “early” indicates that one would want to understand the issue well in advance in order to act proactively.

Using a medical analogy, if you had a blemish on your forehead and went to your dermatologist right away, you could have it taken care of and virtually eliminate the risk of melanoma. Waiting until it is cancerous would make mitigation much more difficult.

The Wiltshire paper lists four key components in considering risk:

  1. Risk Knowledge Local Government Early Warning System
  2. Dissemination & Communication
  3. Monitoring & Warning Service
  4. Response Capability

Wiltshire also suggests that:

“A vertical and horizontal communication and coordination between early warning stakeholders should be established.”

Munetrix couldn’t agree more. An effective Early Warning System should act as a triage and allow the stakeholders the ability to quickly rank the order in which risks receive attention.

For example, in a major disaster affecting hundreds of people, first responders quickly decide who requires immediate attention and transport; who can be treated at the scene; and who can be released to follow up with their own practitioner. First responders don’t typically perform field x-rays or CAT scans. They rely on others to do further evaluation once they rank the population most in need.

Local government fiscal stress is no different. There are tens of thousands of local governments across the nation and using Key Performance Indicators (spending patterns, fund equity, taxable value, population trends and debt) it is fairly easy to identify the equivalent of who:

  • has a high body temperature
  • has high blood pressure
  • has a low blood oxygen level
  • or has lost a lot of blood

Based on the results of these vitals, state or other intervening stakeholders may need to conduct further tests to determine the root cause.

Our recommendation: triage the population and rank the local governments so the sickest get the first available hospital bed!

Munetrix does exactly this, but also uses the local government’s data to determine where the problem areas likely exist – or the second level of analysis. If the government shows stress, (remember the most available government data is outdated), it is crucial to bring them up to current times. If you went to your doctor and said you weren’t feeling well, only to have the physician say, “Well two years ago you were fine” (you would probably go find another doctor) but obviously there isn’t enough information to do anything with. Similarly, you cannot tell a local government’s condition if you rely solely on audited financial statements, which are not forward looking in any stretch of the imagination. But they are informative from a trending standpoint – and can help the triage process.

Grading Schools
Munetrix algorithms can triage every local government (including schools) at once, providing reports at the state, regional, county and local unit level. We also partner with state governments, who ultimately pay the price if one of their siblings falls ill.

If you don’t know what your Munetrix Score is – you should. And if you’re trending form 98.6 to 100 or 102, make sure you don’t get to the point were your “Fever” could cause organ failure!

Oh, and by the way, if you’re a health nut and doing GREAT, brag about it from the highest mountain! Because in today’s reality, if your Munetrix Score is low, you’re doing something special and should be recognized for it.

Is anyone in Michigan going to miss EVIP?

Michigan_state_capitolIn Michigan, the ill fated revenue sharing initiative known as the Economic Vitality Incentive Program (EVIP), a “Carrot and a stick” approach to passing down state revenue sharing dollars to local units of government is dead – - or is it?

The 2015 Approved Appropriations Bill tells a little bit of a different story.

Yes – EVIP by name (the phrase and acronym) is gone!!  Hooray!

The requirement started off as a novel idea, but the execution, and eventual audit ‘nit-picking’ turned it into a downer!

Category 2 (Shared Services) and Category 3 (Compensation and Unfunded Liabilities) are COMPLETELY DEAD and nowhere to be found in the Appropriations Bill this year.

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The Job of a Public Official: Making the Tough Choices

imagesWe commend those who are willing to serve their public institutions, because being an elected official is sure fraught with it challenges. As Mayor Pro-Tem for the City of Auburn Hills, Michigan, I see it first-hand.

Why? Because making tough choices is often not very popular.  But if decisions are made for the right reasons, using the appropriate data and analysis, it is the job of the policymakers, as fiduciaries for their communities, to do what is in the best interest of the city (or school or library or ??), always with respect to the health, safety and welfare of its citizens.

The village board in Holly, Michigan recently voted to use the county sheriff for emergency 911 dispatch – which will save the village considerable money, provide outstanding service, and reduce the burden of having to fund periodic capital equipment upgrades.

In return for their analysis and courage to make a tough decision, the board is now facing recall petitions from angry residents who for some reason do not feel the board made the right decision. The recall petition was denied last week on a technicality. [Read more...]

Sharing Information and Equipment Can Reduce Local Cost Burdens

200px-Supply-demand-right-shift-demand.svgJust when you thought it was safe to come outside…

So now that the winter is over and many local units are planning to spend precious resources on fixing roads, the realities of basic economic principles are going to come into play and cost us even more.

There are only so many road contractors and asphalt plants—and the abundance of major road projects are going to put a damper on unplanned but direly needed repairs.

Here’s why: remember that economics 101 class?  When the demand curve shifts to the right and supply is fixed, price goes up.

We suspect that there will be at least a 20 percent increase in the cost of road projects based on this dynamic.  Even on jobs that were previously quoted, unless a contract has been executed, those quotes will most likely not stand.

So it may be time to look at some best practices, which may be found in the Munetrix Government Collaboration & Best Practices database. [Read more...]

Munetrix: The Swiss Army Knife for Local Government Management

swissarmy2Munetrix has transformed itself from a transparency data-warehouse to a comprehensive Software-as-a-Service Platform in 2013.

We have launched a host of new features available to all users with level 3 access

BudgetBuilder

The BudgetBuilder tool is designed to provide a quick method of creating a top-down budget or forecast for multi-year budgeting. Users can quickly test a variety of revenue, cost and service assumptions to see where they will take a city’s or school district’s financial position in the future. Predictions are supported with easy-to-understand graphics, because, as we all know, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. BudgetBuilder is great for allowing municipalities and school districts to build a fiscal roadmap, with up to five scenarios per year that enable administrators to test the implications of assumptions. The tool is great for internal or public participatory budgeting workshops, clearly displaying the outcomes of assumptions graphically and instantaneously.

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