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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, 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.

Fiscal Health, Fiscal Stress, Municipal, News, Opinion

At least for now, Michigan closes the chapter on Emergency Financial Managers

By: Bob Kittle and Katrina Powell

The State of Michigan Department of the Treasury sent out a press release on June 27, 2018 announcing that for the first time in 18 years, neither a school district or municipality in Michigan has an emergency manager. You can read the press release in its entirety here, but following is an excerpt.

“LANSING, Mich. – State Treasurer Nick Khouri today announced that no Michigan municipality or school district is under state financial oversight through an emergency manager for the first time in nearly 18 years. The…announcement comes after releasing Highland Park School District from receivership under the Local Financial Stability and Choice Act. Since 2000, there has been an emergency manager providing financial oversight somewhere in Michigan.”

For many years the Emergency Financial Manager (later changed to Emergency Manager or EM) concept was regularly maligned by some constituents, citing it as an overreach of state government at the loss of local control and racially motivated. The term carpetbagger was bandied about as well. One respected national government trade publication headlined a 2012 article, Emergency Financial Managers: Michigan’s Unwelcome Savior. As local government financial advisors ourselves, (Katrina was the State-appointed City Manager for Hamtramck from 2014 to 2017) we, but especially Katrina, have been on the receiving end of some hurtful and untrue verbal attacks about roles and motives.

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.

Fiscal Health, Fiscal Stress, Municipal, News, Opinion

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.

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