"Same tax figures, different conclusions." That was the headline of a recent, insightful piece by Edward Russo for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore. The city voted on May 17th against a local income tax to help pay for schools. The original article pointed to one expert who argued that the tax would "subject [Eugene residents] to some of the highest combined state and local income tax rates in the nation." This critic of the tax argued that Oregon residents already paid very steep income taxes, and the proposed city tax would have meant that "upper-income residents would pay income taxes rivaling those in such high-tax places as New York City."
But wait. Yet another well-credentialed expert cited in the piece argued that focusing exclusively on income taxes leads to false conclusions. He pointed out that "the state's income tax rates may be comparatively high, but unlike most states, Oregon doesn't have a sales tax. ... That makes Oregon a low-tax state overall."
Our point isn't that either authority was right or wrong (although we do have our opinions). It's just that figures relating to tax burdens are kind of like one of those black-and-white prints that look like a pretty young girl when you peer at them one way — and like an old crone when viewed another.
Twittering cities. Dan Melton of CfA Labs (part of Code for America, a tech group that works with city managers) has put together a list of the 10 cities with the most followers on Twitter. No surprise that New York came in at number one.
But it was interesting to see that Oklahoma City was number six and the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office was number ten. San Francisco and Los Angeles (which we would have guessed would be high-lever Twitterers) didn't make the list of the top ten. (We couldn't even seem to find a single official Twitter account for the city of L.A., although Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's account has 31,000 followers.)
A few of the Top Tweeters weren't the cities themselves, but their police or sheriff's departments. The full list, in order of followers:
If you tweet and know of any particularly good city accounts, tweet them to us at @greenebarrett.
Ticked at tech? Two weeks ago, we asked readers how frequently they were frustrated by technology. The answers are still coming in, so we'll give you a full report two weeks from now. There was an incredible range of responses. One correspondent told us the problem was that there wasn't enough technology available in his state. Another, meanwhile, said he was frustrated by computers, phones, copiers and the like "805 percent of days," which is pretty darn frustrated.
As one writer in the middle of the pack wrote, "Probably [I'm frustrated] at least every other day. ... I'm trying to figure out why my desktop (home or work) is running so slow, wireless phone reception is erratic, or trying to digest the specifications for all the options for the continuous releasing of new and upgraded phones TVs, etc. Try to get a human being to speak with for tech help? HA!"
Sharing services across city and county lines has become a hot topic — even though there are certainly obstacles (not least of which is the idea that when you share a service, somebody in some community is often going to lose some power). But here's an example of the potential benefits of shared services. It comes from New York state, and it certainly makes the case for finding ways around the challenges.
According to a release from the New York comptroller's office, "Local governments across New York State could save as much as $12.5 million annually by improving tax assessment procedures and sharing assessment duties with other governments."
As Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said in the release, "New York has one of the most complex property tax systems in the nation, but it doesn't have to. New York has the highest taxes in the nation, and we have the most assessors in the nation as well. This is an area ripe for sharing. There's no need for properties to be assessed over and over again by every level of local government. Towns, villages and counties should eliminate duplication and improve the quality of assessments to cut costs and save taxpayer dollars."
"You can't run government like a business," says Frank Fairbanks, who retired in November 2009 after a nearly 20-year stint as city manager of Phoenix. During those years, Phoenix picked up countless accolades for its stellar management. In Governing's Grading the Cities report in February 2000, Phoenix was the only city to receive an A. (Austin got an A-). We spent some time on the phone with Fairbanks a few weeks ago, and you can find excerpts of that conversation here.
Our talk was particularly timely. Arizona's Legislature had passed a bill — subsequently vetoed by the governor — that would have required large Arizona cities to competitively seek bids for all services over $500,000. That seemed like a big stretch to Fairbanks, who says he's seen competitive bidding work very well in some areas, like garbage collection, and fail in others. "That would have been very challenging," he told us. "Bidding works well when cost is the most important factor, and the work cycle and outcomes are easily defined, but it's much harder in areas with a lot of judgment."
The Recovery Act was cited as an example of high-level disclosure and transparency in many states. But now, according to a blog post by Andrew Seifter of Good Jobs First, "In a little-noticed shift since the November elections, at least three states — Florida, Ohio and Kansas — have dramatically stripped down their official American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) websites ... While none of the original websites were great (they all ranked lower than 30th in our January 2010 report card, Show Us the Stimulus), they were goldmines compared to the current websites these states are offering up."
Take a look at Seifter's post to see details about these three states and the reasons they cite for cutting back on their websites. The excuses the states provide, as we think you'll see, don't seem very potent to us.
Education is a field full of examples of "what works." But authors Bo Yan and Mike Slagle make an important point in a recent article in Education Week:
"We believe it is time for a research shift, and instead of making determinations about whether programs work or not, attention should turn to identifying the right students for whom a program is effective and the necessary contextual conditions that make a program work. What's more, local schools should conduct rigorous studies to determine whether programs and initiatives will work for their students-a key to sorting out relevance and applicability.
"Undoubtedly, 'what works' efforts deserve much applause and appreciation, but, unfortunately, they hold only limited value for educators, for two reasons. First, while researchers are pursuing what works in general, what matters to practitioners is what works in their particular setting. Educators know that a program deemed effective by researchers will not necessarily work or may have a rather different impact in their own schools."
This may not be absolutely true. But we liked it anyway: "The longer the title, the less important the job." — George McGovern
You may not have noticed this, but the California Assembly recently passed a bill requiring any city of less than 150 citizens to have its city charter dissolved. So has there a huge outcry from tiny cities sprinkled around the huge state? Not so much. According to Southern California Public Radio (SCPR), there's actually only one city in the entire state that fits the bill: Vernon, with a population of 96.
According to SCPR, "Vernon's low utility, insurance and tax rates have attracted many of California's family-owned businesses, including Simply Fresh Fruit, Tapatio Hot Sauce and the city's largest employer, Farmer John Meat Co. ... But in recent years, the criminal indictments of three of the city's top officials have brought to light decades of corruption, insider dealings and lavish spending by Vernon's ruling class. ... Assembly Speaker John Perez, the bill's author, contends that in a city with so few voters, there is no real accountability for government activity and thus ample opportunity for corruption. Business owners in Vernon are up in arms, saying the move would damage the city's unique business climate."
Civics education is a topic about which we care about deeply, as regular readers of the B&G Report will recall. As a result, we were pretty disappointed by the news reported on the National Conference of State Legislature's The Thicket blog, in a post by Karl Kurtz. Apparently, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, fourth graders were slightly better informed about civics than they were in 1998, while twelfth graders have lost ground since 2006.
As Kurtz writes, "One-quarter of the fourth and eighth graders who took the test fell below a basic level of competence in civics, as did one-third of 12th graders. Only about a quarter of all students scored 'proficient' or 'advanced' at all grade levels. ... Perhaps as disturbing as anything in the results is the persistence of a large gap between racial and ethnic minorities and Whites in the scores. Although Hispanics made gains in relation to Whites, the gap was still wide. Performance by Black students declined both in absolute terms and relative to Whites."
All this has provoked former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to note, "Knowledge of our system of government is not handed down through the gene pool."
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