News & Insights

Education, Municipal, Opinion

The Talking Database: Giving Voice to Government Data

Munetrix Blog - The Talking Database

Advancements in data analysis technology can help school districts and local governments identify and thwart financial crises.

Government data tells a story that can only be read when it’s written in a language we all understand.

Transparency in government is an oft-used catch phrase that’s defined differently from one person to the next. States regulate what data must be provided to the public and sometimes how that data is displayed, but for the most part it is a free for all that results in communities posting fancy charts that average people — both residents and employees — have little time and inclination to understand. Reading lines on a chart or graph is one thing, but walking away with an understanding of the full picture and what it means down the road is another.

Municipal, Opinion

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs or People, People, People?

I get a kick when politicians say they are going to create jobs when there are so many jobs out there now, just not enough people to fill them.

In the public sector, this is really going to hit home in the next 3-10 years, when the tail end of the baby-boomers reach the age of retirement, or 65. When I ask local government leaders what percentage of their workforce will retire in the next decade, they tell me at least 30%, which could even be low. Those who can retire with a pension at age 55 for example, will not stick around to 65; but some of them will continue to work post retirement as 1099s or will part time it at another local government due to the shortage their leaving has on the overall public sector workforce.

Education, News

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

Opinion

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?

Municipal, News, Opinion

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.

Municipal, News, Opinion

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.

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News

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.

Opinion

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.

News

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.

News

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.

News

Munetrix Facilitates Collaboration Among Municipalities and Local Governments via Social Sharing Tools

collabWhat do Munetrix and Facebook have in common?

More than you might think.

Unlike Facebook, Munetrix is all about productivity. Munetrix is a firm believer that there is no value to reinventing the wheel.  What we believe is valuable, however, is that sharing the design and schematics of the invention of the wheel so that others can benefit from it is important.

That’s why Munetrix, in addition to hosting powerful financial and transparency forecasting tools, is designed to function as a socially networked collaborative hub for school and municipal administrators.  A special web-based portal and database inside Munetrix now stores more than 800 best practices and ideas that are searchable for others to learn from.

Local government administrators and employees can search the common database by over 30 functional or departmental filters to discover unique collaborations that saved local governments or school districts time and money.  

Education, K-12, News

Munetrix Helps School Districts Comply with New MDE Transparency Requirements

school-68931_640The State of Michigan continues to push local units of governments and school districts toward greater efficiency, transparency and accountability.

Much like it did with revenue sharing for municipalities through the Economic Vitality and Incentive Program in 2011, the State of Michigan established new best practice standards in 2013 for local and intermediate school districts under the State School Aid Act (Public Act 60) for 2013.

The new law links compliance with 8 best practices to discretionary per-pupil foundation allocations, on top of to any regular transparency requirements. The economic benefit of compliance is substantial; equal to $52.00 in addition to the foundation allowance per pupil. Compliance must occur before June 30, 2014.

News

Polar Vortex Continues to Wreak Havoc on Local Government Budgets

Tennessee_Tech_during_Polar_Vortex

Image source: Wikipedia

As mayor pro-tem for Auburn Hills I often receive emails from residents, and recently I received one from a concerned citizen asking why the roads in his neighborhood were so bad and what I was going to do about it.

Most residents don’t understand the difference between a state, county or local road.  They just know that when their tire blows out—they are not happy!

News

Six Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Budget from the Polar Vortex

Surprises.  We all hate them when it comes to budgets.

Most local units of government have been pulling themselves up by the bootstraps since the impacts of the Great Recession.  But the uncertainty of Mother Nature has thrown many for a frozen loop this year.

How do you budget for snowiest January ever?

Most local units have used 60-70 percent of their road salt half way through the winter, not to mention overtime hours, wear and tear on equipment, water main breaks, and potholes.

And the worst is not over.  Regardless of how much snow we will still get, and no matter how cold it stays, the eventual spring thaw will wreak havoc on the condition of the roads come April showers and May flowers.

So what’s an administrator to do?  Here are six best practices that might make your winter doldrums more palatable.

  1. Monitor your departmental budget monthly to actual expenses so there are no fiscal surprises.
  2. Develop budget recovery plans now, using up to a three-year outlook on where to pull the revenue from.
  3. Communicate with residents before the roads turn to mush.  Let them know that this will be a rough spring when it comes to road conditions, and to use as much caution as possible (and to be patient).
  4. Pool resources (collaborate) with neighboring communities to avoid any overlap in maintenance of lane miles.  If your trucks have to travel over a neighboring community’s road to reach a destination, consider working out a financial arrangement to be able to cover each other’s area and avoid duplication.
  5. If you are not already doing so, consider brine solutions to slow down the consumption of your salt.
  6. Develop an asset management plan so you know ahead of time which roads may be most problematic, and which water mains may be suspect due to age or materials.

At the end of the day, roads and infrastructure maintenance are one of those “must perform” services that any local government has to do regardless of the circumstances.

Munetrix can help you understand where you stand in relation to other local governments’ operating expenditures for your DPW expenditures.  If you see that a peer has a lower operating cost per capita, or other measure, consult with them to find out what they are doing that might help you dial in your services or costs to become more efficient.  We all need to learn from each other, and Munetrix is an enabler in that regard.

Also, use data to tell your story, and make sure you understand what your residents must have, would like to have and could care less about by conducting bi-yearly citizen surveys.  Munetrix can steer you to services that perform these surveys.

In any event, over-communicate and drive the story.

Why? Because nobody likes surprises.

Author: Bob Kittle
Bob Kittle is the President and Co-founder of Munetrix.com

News

Grading Schools: Letters, Colors or Numbers?

According to an Oakland Press’ editorial in the November 10, 2013 Open Forum, Michigan Republican state Rep, Lisa Posthumus Lyons is proposing legislature that would change the color-coded method Michigan currently uses to rate local schools to a single letter grade matching the report card formats used on K-12 education.

In today’s world of tablets and technology, visualization is an effective way to communicate performance management. Michigan’s Governor Snyder has instituted visual dashboard metrics into virtually every department within the state, municipalities and schools notwithstanding.  People understand red = bad and green = good, and gradients in between are somewhere between good and bad, so long as the scale is shown in context to the scoring system.

Munetrix, a fiscal measurement and grading transparency website for local governments and schools, uses this methodology quite effectively.  From a fiscal stability standpoint, the Munetrix scoring methodology translates complicated financial data into a simple, visual snapshot that anybody can understand – even using the “lime green” that Ms. Posthumus Lyons believes will confuse parents.

Grading SchoolsWe use this method because people easily understand simple color-based data representations and we would suggest, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the Michigan Legislature look at successful implementations of standardized metrics and work with data in the way people digest information today: with their eyes.

Besides, when kids go beyond the K-12 education system, letter grades go out the window and are replaced with a 4.0 scale.

Bob Kittle, President & CEO Munetrix

News

Four subjects we need to focus less on in school

Are we failing the youth of this nation?

No, this is not a POD song tribute… more of a commentary on the education system as a whole. It is my humble opinion that the attempts at making students more “well-rounded” have most definitely had the reverse effect.

The argument for the past 20 or 30 years is that introducing students to a greater variety of topics will increase their ability to get a better job, contribute to society, and/or possibly be a better person.  I do not necessarily disagree with this sentiment. The focus on it has become far too great, much to the detriment of those exposed to it.

Trust me, this isn’t a fun argument to have. You try telling people that their kid should learn LESS. Very few positive reactions, let me tell you. Even so, I believe it is a conversation worth having.

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