Requiring a Doctor's Note, Tax Rates vs. Growth, and Performance in Beantown

Plus: A well-written plea for audtiting, and more management news
 

Cleveland, Ohio, appears to have cut down dramatically on overtime costs among firefighters. How? By requiring a doctor's note anytime a firefighter leaves work sick after starting a 24-hour shift.

According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, city safety director Martin Flask "said in an interview last week that between Dec. 12 and May 12, firefighters called off for 1,980 hours, amounting to a 70 percent decline."

It's hard to argue with the results. But we've got a couple of questions: If the number of doctors' visits escalates in cities that follow this path, won't health care costs go up, diminishing the benefits of fewer overtime hours? Also, isn't there a possibility that some employees will wind up missing even more time — because it's pretty hard to schedule a doctor's visit on a few hours' notice, unless you use an emergency room, which is even more expensive.

We're not arguing with Cleveland here. But we are curious to know what you, B&G readers, think of the idea. We'd love to hear your thoughts.


We're not going to get involved in questions of tax rates and economic vitality here. But we did come across two interesting tidbits that seem to indicate there are a whole lot more factors involved in economic growth than just a reflection of taxes levied. Here goes: At the end of February, the Tax Foundation found that Wyoming had the lowest state taxes on business. This, presumably, would be good for business. But now the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis has ranked Wyoming number 50 in terms of growth or decline in gross domestic product.


There's a great deal of negativity about the usefulness of performance measurements in improving government services. As a result, we were happy to hear from Devin L. Quirk, Boston's performance manager, who reported that "we are truly using the performance data collected by the Boston About Results (BAR) performance management program to deliver on Mayor [Thomas] Menino's promise to improve services to Bostonians." According to Quirk, "In Boston, data is used to improve resource efficiency, manage basic city services and communicate to the public. At a time of constrained resources, doing the most with what you have and telling residents about it should be the goal of all public managers."

Quirk told us this kind of thing is happening throughout the city, and he provided one particularly strong example: "Over the past two years, division managers in Public Works have sat together each month and reviewed trends in overtime expenditures and personnel absences. The results have been remarkable. With just a few months to go in FY12, overtime expenditures are on track to decrease by 29 percent over FY10 levels. And, sick abuse is down nearly 10,000 hours (or 21 percent) in the last year alone."

Quirk also passed along the three central tenets the city believes makes its performance measurement efforts successful. In short:

  • "We consistently tie performance data back to the services provided to Bostonians."
  • "We work to ensure managers are using performance data at all levels."
  • "We close the loop with citizens and ask them to hold us accountable."

"Whether you want big or little government, you want government to do things that work." -- Gary VanLandingham, director of the Pew Center on the States' Results First initiative.


Regular readers of the B&G Report will know that we've repeatedly written about the potentials for performance auditing. We don't think we've ever made the case more clearly than has Mark Funkhouser, former Kansas City mayor and auditor, and currently the director of the Governing Institute. Mark's recent contribution to Governing.com is spot-on. We recommend it.


Congratulations to the inspector general's office in Louisiana. After a full-front attack on the office by some in the Legislature, the Senate voted unanimously to keep it going, and efforts to defund seemed to wither away. Though a variety of reasons were cited for the move to eliminate the office, it seemed to boil down to a case in which the inspector general was goring some oxen that had the potential to gore back.

There's a lesson in this. The office was saved largely because good-government groups supported it, and the press was seemingly full of articles defending the agency's history of work and looking closely at the maneuvers to throw it under the Baton Rouge bus.

We've always thought that an educated public can be good government's best friend. And here's a case where that was true.


Around the beginning of the year, we came across an article indicating that the Marriott hotel owned by the city of Trenton, N.J., was losing money — not a good thing at a time when Trenton, like many other cities, faces a pile of other economic stresses. More recently, we've seen an audit indicating that the Baltimore-owned Hilton is also in the red. These two examples hardly make for an epidemic, but we'll bet there are others. It seems to us, on principle, that if a big hotel chain can't find a way to make a profit by financing its own hotel in a big city, then it may not be the best idea for the city to think it can.


Stone walls do not a prison make. A number of states have been successful at reducing prison populations over the last few years, and that in turn has left some states with excess prison space. That's a nice problem to have, but it's even nicer when states can figure out a good alternate use for the now-vacated prisons. And that's exactly what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is trying to do, according to The New York Times.

Thanks to lower crime rates, early release programs and changes in its drug laws, New York has a "glut" of vacant correctional facilities, according to the Times. The state is "reviewing proposals for a new retail development to replace the former Arthur Kill Correctional Facility on Staten Island, and for a manufacturing plant at Camp Georgetown" in the central part of the state.

This isn't easy stuff. Across the country, most prisons are in relatively remote areas, which kind of rules out turning them into shopping malls (although there would be a nice psychological deterrent to shoplifting). But obstacles aside, we applaud the state for its creativity.


Is GASB's work of interest to you? It probably should be if you care at all about the financial statements of cities, states and counties. And if it is, here's some good news from a June 1 press release: "Effective immediately, final Statements and certain other pronouncements issued by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) are available for downloading at no cost on the GASB website (www.gasb.org), the Financial Accounting Foundation (FAF) announced today. Documents available will include GASB Statements, Concept Statements, Interpretations, and Technical Bulletins. These documents will be posted as PDF files in their originally issued form and therefore the documents have not been modified for any subsequent amendments."


We sent one of our children to the University of North Carolina, and the other just graduated from the University of Wisconsin. So maybe we have a little bias in favor of public universities. But notwithstanding that, we were unhappy to see that according to the U.S. Department of Education, tuition at four-year public colleges shot up by 15 between 2008 and 2010, while private colleges' tuitions rose 9.7 percent. The reason behind the numbers is pretty clear: States have been cutting back on aid to higher education, leaving universities to make up that gap while dealing with the same higher education inflation confronted by all institutions of higher learning.

From a strictly managerial point of view, we can't help wonder what penalty states are already paying by making it more difficult to attend their public universities. A well-trained workforce is clearly one of the most significant attractions for new business. Just ask any site selector for big companies. So how much it will cost states in the long run, if this trend continues and the percentage of high school graduates who can afford college declines?

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