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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. 

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.

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.

Education, Fiscal Health, Fiscal Stress, Municipal, News, Opinion

Finally, it’s not the economy; unfortunately, it’s still the education void

By: Bob Kittle

If it ain’t one thing, it’s another. Perhaps not the best way to start a blog that is ultimately on education, but as the economy hums along (despite some potentially scary headwinds with the recent GM announcement) education is the nemesis that Michigan (or at least Detroit) can’t seem to conquer.

The Detroit Regional Chamber recently released its 2018-2019 State of the Region providing economic indicators and critical areas of improvement for its 11-county region plus Detroit. The report overall offered an upbeat outlook on the region’s progress in many sectors, but underscored the importance in addressing areas in which the region continues to lag – notably education. In a spot-on Detroit News column by Daniel Howes, the education void is so dark and vast, its challenges may temper many of the positive gains made in the region and the state for recent years.

The good news is that Detroit is outpacing the nation in growth in real gross domestic product (2.7 percent vs. 2.2 percent nationally) and per capita income (4.3 percent compared to 4.1 percent nationally). That can’t be overlooked. Nor can the fact that Detroit was second in the nation in growth of median home values between 2013 and 2017, increasing by 42.4 percent (Seattle was number one). The high cost of living on the East and West Coasts makes Detroit attractive—a plus for companies aiming to boost and cultivate tech talent.

But contradicting these positive indicators are critical areas where Detroit is missing out, notably extreme poverty, low metrics on community well-being, and stagnant population growth. Yet the most pressing issue is the mediocre status of Detroit’s educational attainment—which was actually below the national numbers in 2017.

Education, Fiscal Health, Fiscal Stress, K-12, News

Cities & Schools Reach Crisis Point Due to States’ Low Economic Reserves

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (Many States Are Unprepared for Next Economic Downturn) caught my attention because it highlighted a key factor adding to the fiscal stress of municipalities and schools.  The article suggested that most states are unprepared for an inevitable economic downturn as they lack the necessary fiscal reserves or rainy-day funds to cushion the next financial blow, and, it’s already having a negative trickle-down effect.

Forced to do more with less since the last recession, cities and schools are continually struggling with reduced revenue sharing from their states while scrambling to meet the demands of unfunded mandates, retiree obligations, an aging infrastructure and even increased student testing. Add this to the anticipated silver tsunami caused by public sector retirements in the next decade, we see a myriad of local governments that are already stretched too thin and have reached a crisis point.

One of the most alarming things noted in the WSJ article was that some states appear to have little sense of urgency and limited tools to address these budgetary shortfalls. Forget crisis point—this dilemma will have far-reaching and long-term consequences for the populations served by those who gloss over the unavoidable hard truth and do nothing about it now.

Education, Fiscal Health, Fiscal Stress, Municipal, Opinion

FY 2025 forecast could spell disaster for many communities

From this point forward, saving every minute and dollar possible in anticipation for what lies ahead will be crucial to survival in the public sector.

Maybe you’ve heard us talk about the silver tsunami, or perhaps you’ve read other articles on it, but the reality is while we all can clearly see what’s coming for us, few of us are doing anything to prepare for it.

Let’s be clear about what awaits us: in less than 10 years’ time almost half of the public sector workforce will retire.

Conservative estimates put the looming exodus at 40 percent. Depending on the make-up of your workforce this mass departure could happen at a more subtle pace throughout the next decade or it could happen almost over night, in a single fiscal year or season. Regardless of the makeup of your workforce, the coming silver tsunami will leave destruction in its wake.

Education, Municipal, Opinion

Start Your Second Quarter Plans With These 3 Considerations

Bob KittleWith the first quarter behind us, the following three topics are high-value items to consider in Q2 for planning purposes:

Infrastructure Planning

The problems associated with aging infrastructure can cripple municipal budgets, but with proper planning, communities can strategically use their revenue when and where it counts most. The most effective way to plan for infrastructure improvements is to create an inventory of assets, public lands and utilities, noting: the present condition; when repairs were last made and how long they are expected to last; the cost and time associated with needed repairs; and average usage. Many states statutorily require this to be performed.

Once you have a complete inventory, use common sense and data science to plan projects. Avoid redundancy and lower costs by planning street projects with local utilities. Address potholes and surface damage by assessing the extent of the damage, the risk to safety and average traffic flow. Align infrastructure planning across all departments. Maintaining centralized oversight of large infrastructure projects and ensuring all staff members adhere to an internal communications plan, decreases risks of redundancy and improves timeline efficiency.

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.

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

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.

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