Facebook, for us, is a very useful device for looking at pictures of our children's friends. A growing number of cities, counties and states are using it as a way to keep in touch with taxpayers. Without any solid evidence, we're a little dubious about the real value added here. So we're turning to you, B&G readers, to tell us what you think.
How useful is Facebook to local governments? In what ways? And if your entity uses it, how's it been going? Email us and let us know.
When we suggested that taxpayer dollars spent on Fourth of July fireworks might be a worthwhile expenditure, we were inundated with emails arguing that, at a time when firefighters and police are being laid off, fireworks shouldn't be on the list of priorities.
Now, according to a piece on Pantagraph.com, we see that lawmakers in the state of Illinois have been distributing coloring books to kids. According to the piece, "Along with offering kids the opportunity to color things like the official state snack — popcorn — and the official state prairie grass — Big Bluestem — the booklets also prominently feature the name, contact information and picture of the lawmaker or state official."
Apparently, lawmakers think the coloring books have real value in making young people familiar with state government. And if they accomplish that, it's a good thing. But we're not sure how much knowledge of the state snack contributes to understanding of government. In any case, this is questionable timing for these kinds of giveaways.
What on earth are "waste, fraud and abuse"? In recent years, these three words have become as conjoined as "snap, crackle and pop." But aside from a certain euphonious melody, we don't think people really know what the three words actually mean (with the possible exception of fraud).
What's abuse, for example? Is it an instance in which someone uses loopholes in laws and regulations in order to draw out more money than was intended? That might be a nice definition. But we often see people use "abuse" to mean money spent on programs they didn't like in the first place. As for waste, the same kind of thing holds true. Some folks, for example, might think it's "wasteful" to spend public money on improved school facilities (like the New Hampshire legislator who long ago told us that his state was building "Taj Mahals" for schools — by which he meant that they included gymnasiums and art rooms). Others would disagree entirely.
So here's our modest proposal: The next time a high-ranking public manager or elected official says that he or she is going to save a ton of money fighting "waste, fraud and abuse," ask how the person is defining those three words. We bet your query will be met with a long pause.
Alert for New York school districts: Every day is sale day! Sen. Chuck Schumer believes that many school districts in New York state are unaware that there's a new way for them to buy new technology for less money. The savings come as a result of property tax reform at the state level, which allows districts to use a federal program that reduces taxpayer burdens.
According to a piece in the Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin, "A provision that passed in the New York state property tax cap legislation allows school districts to purchase information technology from federal cooperative purchasing agreements. A legal restriction that prevented state school districts from purchasing technology through the federal General Services Administration's Federal Supply program was lifted. Districts can now leverage lower prices by utilizing the program."
Said Schumer, "The problem is, most districts don't know about this opportunity and haven't been taking advantage of it."
We repeatedly hear politicians boasting about the fact that they have passed a number of balanced budgets. This feels like the two of us bragging that we don't shoplift, or rob banks. For almost all states, balanced budgets are the law, not an option that proves fiscal prudence. (What's more, as we've written before, the truth is that balanced budgets don't really mean much unless they stay balanced though the fiscal year — not such a common event).
Consolidation is the key to savings, right? (Or maybe it's deconsolidation. It kind of depends what season it is.) Anyhow, a new report from the Missouri State Auditors' Office reveals that a merger of the state Water Patrol into the Missouri State Highway Patrol caused costs to go up, not down. Savings may eventually appear, but thus far, according to the audit, the merger seems to have increased costs by about $900,000.
As the Associated Press writes, "According to the audit, the merger has saved about $900,000 by eliminating support staff members, replacing high-ranking Water Patrol commanders who left the agency with lower-ranking officers and by ending a lease for a building used by the Water Patrol. But the auditor's office said those savings have been more than offset by about $1.8 million in costs from increased retirement and health care contributions."
Public safety officials contest the findings, indicating that more time will be needed to realize savings. What's more, they argue, the consolidation was helpful in Missouri's response to this year's flooding, tornado and blizzard.
Speaking of accountability: "I would not vote for the mayor. It's not just because he didn't invite me to dinner, but because on my way into town from the airport there were such enormous potholes." — Fidel Castro
You've undoubtedly heard this. Someone in the statehouse or city hall is found to be unscrupulous — maybe it's a matter of taking kickbacks, fixing parking tickets or using government resources for personal use. When people close to the situation get together, someone frequently says, "I saw it coming," or "That was sure no surprise."
We certainly get all the reasons why people are reticent to turn in a co-worker. But we have equal sympathy for U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who recently told the City Club of Chicago: "The one thing I find frustrating is that people view corruption as a law enforcement problem. If I had a dollar for everyone who has come up to me after we've convicted someone and said, 'Yes, we knew he or she was doing that all the time but we wondered when someone was going to get around to doing something about it.' And I bite my lip, but I wanted to smack them upside the head."
Maybe we've been mistaken, but we've long been under the impression that one advantage of user fees is that, in many cases, they permit citizens to opt out of the service connected to the fee. But according to the Wichita Eagle, people arrested by local police and taken to jail will pay for their jail cells at the rate of $2 per hour and a $10 booking fee.
That's a little more per day than you'd spend for a king size bed at the local Econo Lodge. (Although the Econo Lodge doesn't include three daily meals, plus guards.) Forget for a moment about any fiscal or moral issues of this. We mention it largely to buttress our oft-held argument that user fees are going to be the next big battleground for local revenue raising efforts.
Don't Count Us Out is the title of a recent report from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation. The subtitle explains the thesis of the paper: "How an overreliance on accountability could undermine the public's confidence in schools, business, government and more."
One of the major thrusts of the piece is that the kind of evidence institutions use to demonstrate accountability may not mesh with the information citizens want to see. We recommend that you take a look.