Insights & Analysis

News

As Michigan’s K-12 enrollment declines, count day grows in importance; first count day of the school year is Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Auburn Hills, Mich. –September 27,  2019 – The term, “count day” which is Wednesday October 2, 2019, is a familiar one to both Michigan educators and the parents who want their child counted, according to Buzz Brown, co-founder and Vice President of Munetrix, a public sector solutions provider offering data management, analytics and reporting tools for states, local governments and public school districts. Brown says the familiar term is taking on increased significance as Michigan’s K-12 population declines.

“Students in Michigan school districts and charter schools are counted many other dates besides the first official count day in October,” Brown said. ‘There are actually four official count days each school year, but the October date is the standout because it’s first. From a percentage perspective 90% of district students are accounted for in October and 10% are accounted for in January.”

Most schools only count on count day because of the extra paperwork and reporting requirements for counting students after that date – but that can be a costly mistake, Brown cautions. That’s because declining enrollment and the competitive race to attract children to neighboring school districts, charter schools and private schools are collectively slicing into a shrinking pie.

“One of the few growing districts in SE Michigan lost $1M in state funding last year when 120 children failed to be counted for unknown reasons, yet given their growth rates, this district was able to absorb the cost more easily than others – but it still hurt,” Brown said.  “Most Michigan districts are contracting and fewer students mean fewer dollars.”

For those who miss count day, there is some leniency. Schools have 10 days after count day to count a child that has an unexcused absence, 30 days if the absence is excused and 45 days if the student is suspended. The challenge to the districts, regardless of the number counted, is that they always start the school year in Michigan before the state budget is decided, leaving some schools to borrow money until state aid is released.

“The timeframe of the state budget for education is a hot topic each fall. Compared to that, getting students to be counted on count day is a much easier task,” Brown said. “As some school districts will attest. a pizza party and other incentives to lure students to school that day also helps.”

Additional information on  school count day and funding can be found at the State of Michigan website.

Education, Fiscal Health, Fiscal Health, Municipal

The Transparency Illusion

By Bob Kittle

The demand for government transparency is more fervent than ever. While, in the past, inquiring about the use of tax dollars required time, filling out forms or even a trip to City Hall, today the public expects almost instant gratification to their questions — or not even have to ask questions because they want to find it on their own with internet searches, even from their mobile device. More often than not, they are disappointed with the results they find.

The problem isn’t that local governments aren’t posting budgets and financial information online. It’s that they are doing so in a manner that pretty much renders them useless to anyone who doesn’t have a background in municipal finance, public administration or data science. When it comes to transparency, more isn’t always better, and dozens of 100-page PDF documents are not synonymous with the intent of Transparency.

People want to know what projects and programs their tax dollars are funding; answers to questions like where the money for those new signs came from, why potholes on their street aren’t fixed, or any other information that’s relevant to their home value, safety and/or quality of life in the neighborhood.

Citizens want timely, helpful data that they can understand. When local governments post loads of data ad nauseam, the public is left with the task of sorting through it and trying to understand what it all means and how it relates to their query. For many, the process isn’t just exasperating, it results in having less trust in their government. A telling bumper sticker I once saw said, “I love my country, but I don’t trust all its governments.” Touché.

This type of transparency is like wearing someone else’s prescription glasses; you might be able to see some blurred images but not the details that really matter.

Publishing reams of data isn’t transparency, It’s the illusion of transparency.

Understanding what information to share, when to share it and the level of transparency people expect:

  • helps local governments provide insightful and relevant information;
  • reduces the risk of publishing private information;
  • improves community public relations; and
  • encourages trust in the electorate and area stakeholders.

This consistency also provides stakeholders the ability to know exactly where information is, when it was put there and how to retrieve it. It should also stay in the same location for consistency purposes.

While someone should be tasked with managing and monitoring transparency within the organization, it doesn’t require a new hire or expansive workload. The use of performance management software (like the Munetrix dashboard), makes the process easy, efficient and relatively timeless and provides municipalities and school districts with the ability to share, monitor and understand the data they publish with little more than a click of a mouse.

We recommend being fully transparent, so you’ll never be accused of the “Illusion of Transparency” when it comes to accessing your open data and documents. 

News

And then there were none…cities and schools must prepare for silver tsunami of public sector retirements as next gen college students select other careers

Auburn Hills, Mich. –September X, 2019 –A silver tsunami of retirements is anticipated in schools and municipalities over the next several years; yet, as college students head back to college this month, only an estimated 5% are considering a career in the public sector. Further, a 2019 survey found the number of students graduating with a master’s degree in public policy and entering careers in federal, state and local government dropped 15% from 2011 to 2017. These statistics should have local government unit leaders on edge, according to Bob Kittle, president of Munetrix, a public sector solutions provider offering data management, analytics and reporting tools for states, local governments and public school districts.

“Finance directors, assessors and administrators are just an example of positions already in short supply. Think of where we’ll be when those who understand complex water and sewer systems leave,” Kittle said. “And those technical positions lean more toward skilled trades rather than traditional four-year college grads, and the shortage of skilled trades has already been well established.”

A 2016 report from Pew noted that 50% of state and 52% of local government employees were between the ages of 45 and 64 in 2013; but Kittle says administrators at the local level can be reticent to share information on their own local unit’s expected retirement wave.

“I’m regularly on the speaker’s circuit discussing data driven decision making and succession planning.  When I ask for a show of hands as to how many in the audience will be retiring in the next five years, typically # hands go up,” Kittle said. “This supports the data we have in our platform that tracks employees by age range in cities and schools, but when we ask our customers outright for data on planned staff retirements over the next five years, there is definitely a reluctance to provide the information.”

Kittle says the hesitation can be that certain districts or cities don’t run reports on the data or track it well enough. That’s why Munetrix has a tool with its platform that makes tracking easier.

“We are really heading toward a crisis situation in the public sector in terms of talent and seniority,” Kittle said. “The Munetrix app is a tool to help support succession planning and institutional knowledge preservation, and to increase the portability of key jobs within the local unit, but we still need to raise awareness of the option for career changers and young adults to pursue public sector opportunities.”

For their part, the company established Munetrix University in 2013 to provide paid internships in data science to college students. The company has had 26 interns since it began the program in 2013.  Additionally, Munetrix announced this month a new scholarship program through the Michigan Government Finance Officials Association and (name of school association) that it would offer five  $1,000 scholarships to college students who plan to pursue a career in local government. Students may apply for the scholarship through (add website links.)

Education, Municipal, News, Opinion

Cheers to a successful millage passage!

By: Bob Kittle

It was announced at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference in May 2019 that a coalition of education advocates is aiming for a Wayne County millage to support after-school programs. If supported, the county-wide proposal would be on the Wayne County ballot in 2020. While this effort may be worthwhile, it is certain to be a challenge, first because it’s a county-wide vote, but also because gaining support for any millage proposal can be difficult – as almost any city or school district can attest. Having accurate and timely data can help build a strong case for millage requests and lessen the handwringing for anxious policymakers at the same time.

Munetrix understands the importance of data in community decision making. Increased demands for transparency make it clear that constituents want confidence that every penny is spent wisely. When current dollars aren’t enough to support operations or a new community initiative, a strong case can be made for additional funding by comparing how similar communities pay for equivalent services. You can also respond to naysayers with data reflecting that proposed millage rates aren’t unprecedented or out of line using relevant comparable analysis.

Citizens expect data to be accessible and will use it to better understand their community’s use of taxpayer funds. While preparing for your next city or school (or, in the case of Wayne County, after-school) millage, use data in your favor.  

Munetrix makes government data easy. If you need assistance with your next millage proposal, don’t hesitate to contact us.

Fiscal Stress, Municipal, News, Opinion

Don’t believe everything you read. But believe this. Many Municipalities are Starving.

By: Bob Kittle

The headline of this March 21, 2019 post, Property Taxes Up $638 Million In 2018, by Michigan Capitol Confidential is eye-catching—and surely stoked the fire of those who believe they pay too much in property taxes—but let’s not let the facts get in the way.

While Michigan property tax collections may be up for the sixth consecutive year, it must be considered that the drop from 2008–2012 was so severe that the increases still haven’t caught up to pre-recession levels. That’s an important piece of information missing from the article, and is caused by the limitations of 1978’s Headlee Tax Amendment to the State’s Constitution, then followed up by 1994’s Proposal A.

To make this easier to understand, I will use an analogy with our retirement savings plans and homes. During the recession, most of us saw a 40–50% drop in the value of our retirement savings, only to see it storm back and exceed where we were initially—if we were patient. Same with housing values. Property owners saw their home values cut in half, and subsequently watched as they stormed back from 2012 to today. In most cases, our property is now worth more than it was worth pre-recession.

But local units of government in Michigan don’t see that appreciation because they are limited to a taxable value increase of CPI or 5% per year, whichever is lower. CPI didn’t exceed 2% until 2017 – so while our 401Ks and home values were rebounding at compounding double digit rates, municipalities had to watch as everybody else got well, but they were (are) handcuffed. In Auburn Hills, where I am a councilperson, our Total Taxable Value is still down $1B from its 2007 level, meaning we must operate on nearly $1M less in property tax revenue when it comes to paying our police and fire personnel, fixing roads and generally running the government.

On top of that, the State fixed their budget by pulling much needed sales tax revenue from local governments to fix their structural deficit. The last straw is that IF a community sees tax increases on certain properties exceed the constitutional limits, the rest of the city’s properties must be reduced by the corresponding value to make sure, on a city-wide basis, the total taxable value doesn’t exceed the allowable limit. The laws never considered a market crash!

Look, Munetrix is in the municipal data business, so we understand the role of data, especially in communicating to constituents. What we don’t like is half-truths, and appreciate when journalists provide balanced stories.

At the end of the day, many communities are cash-strapped and starving, but mostly not by their own actions.

News

Munetrix contribution to Dark Store Legislation Defense Fund reflects solidarity with the local units of government it serves

Auburn Hills, Mich. – March 21, 2019 –Munetrix, a public sector solutions provider offering data management, analytics and reporting tools for states, local governments and public school districts, showed its support for Escanaba and Michigan’s so-called Dark Store legislation, with a recent donation of $4,100.

The donation follows Munetrix September 2018 pledge to donate 10% of its subscription service price for each new Michigan city, village, township or county customer in the month of September to the Dark Store Legislation Defense Fund. Donations per governmental unit ranged from $500 to $1,500 depending on the subscription category. 

A vexing national issue for local governments and school districts, SB 1025 and HB 6049 were introduced in Michigan in May 2018 in response to Michigan Tax Tribunal’s application of a tax loophole that assessed the value of fully functioning big box stores as if they were empty (“dark”).  Both bills were re-introduced with bi-partisan support in January 2019 and are awaiting action

The loophole was first applied to a Menards store in Escanaba in 2014, but grew to national pharmacies, chain stores and fast food restaurants as retailers used it as a precedent to reduce their own property tax bills. The cumulative result has been a significant reduction in local tax revenues, which creates a challenge nationally for already struggling communities striving to deliver quality services in an affordable manner. 

The money donated by Munetrix and others, including municipalities and individuals, is helping defray the legal costs incurred by the City of Escanaba as it awaits a re-trial before the Michigan Tax Tribunal beginning May 13.

“Serving more than 300 Michigan municipalities and school districts, Munetrix gets in the trenches with our customers to help build and support fiscally healthy governmental units throughout Michigan. This donation falls right in line with that type of support and shows our commitment to their mission,” Munetrix President Bob Kittle said.

News

Munetrix contribution to Dark Store Legislation Defense Fund reflects solidarity with the local units of government it serves

Auburn Hills, Mich. – March 20, 2019 –Munetrix, a public sector solutions provider offering data management, analytics and reporting tools for states, local governments and public school districts, showed its support for Escanaba and Michigan’s so-called Dark Store legislation, with a recent donation of $4,100. 

The donation follows Munetrix September 2018 pledge to donate 10% of its subscription service price for each new Michigan city, village, township or county customer in the month of September to the Dark Store Legislation Defense Fund. Donations per governmental unit ranged from $500 to $1,500 depending on the subscription category. 

A vexing national issue for local governments and school districts, SB 1025 and HB 6049 were introduced in Michigan in May 2018 in response to Michigan Tax Tribunal’s application of a tax loophole that assessed the value of fully functioning big box stores as if they were empty (“dark”). Both bills were re-introduced with bi-partisan support in January 2019 and are awaiting action. 

The loophole was first applied to a Menards store in Escanaba in 2014, but grew to national pharmacies, chain stores and fast food restaurants as retailers used it as a precedent to reduce their own property tax bills. The cumulative result has been a significant reduction in local tax revenues, which creates a challenge nationally for already struggling communities striving to deliver quality services in an affordable manner. 

The money donated by Munetrix and others, including municipalities and individuals, is helping defray the legal costs incurred by the City of Escanaba as it awaits a re-trial before the Michigan Tax Tribunal beginning May 13. 

“Serving more than 300 Michigan municipalities and school districts, Munetrix gets in the trenches with our customers to help build and support fiscally healthy governmental units throughout Michigan. This donation falls right in line with that type of support and shows our commitment to their mission,” Munetrix President Bob Kittle said. 

Education, Fiscal Stress

Can Michigan Teachers Afford to Live in the County Where They Work?

By: Buzz Brown

“Can Michigan teachers afford to live in the county where they work?” An interesting question and the answer is yes…and no.

First, some background. Following teacher walk-outs in West Virginia, (soon followed by Oklahoma and Arizona) last spring over low teacher salaries, a National Public Radio (NPR) story aired that asked a similar question, identifying Michigan as having the highest paid teacher salaries in the country. Needless to say, that claim raised a few eyebrows among those involved with teaching, school administration or providing advisory services to Michigan public school districts.

Municipal, Opinion

If your local unit of government is planning to make some big purchases in 2019, you might want to read this first.

Government Procurement PracticesPeople in the private sector like to opine that government should operate like a business, but that’s just not practical. The goal of the public sector is to provide the best possible services at the lowest possible cost, with a focus on the health, safety and welfare of the community. The goal of the private sector is to make a profit. These competing interests make it impossible for governments to run like a business; plus, there are some poorly run businesses no one should ever emulate.

But that’s not to say local units of government (LUGs) can’t learn a thing or two from the private sector. There are elements of successful businesses that can be incorporated into the business of government; particularly, certain procurement practices.

LUGs with decentralized or no formal procurement practice can benefit more than others, especially those that look at purchasing goods and services as only a task. The sooner the “done” box can be checked, the sooner they can get to the next issue du-jour.

LUGs often use bid networks and place orders with the, “lowest qualified bidder” no matter how many bidders participate. They also see over-specified bigger ticket items, many times prepared with the help of a vendor who then becomes the only person capable of meeting the requirements. Other potential providers can usually read between the lines in these cases and don’t bother submitting a bid.

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