B&G Report: Public Records of the Dead, Empty Committees and Pension Tips

All the public-sector management news you need to know.

B&G's Law. We have nothing against lower taxes, per se. That said, if we were in charge of cities and states, we'd make an iron clad rule that anyone running for elective office who promises new tax cuts will be balanced with reduced services would be required to name the services specifically, the amount they'd be cut and the impact on the population. And they'd have to do that at the same time they announced their tax cut plan. Since we’re not in charge, this isn’t about to happen. But if people out there think this is a good idea or a bad idea, please let us know.

Finding the balance between transparency and privacy when it comes to government records is a tricky one. We fear that cities, counties and states can easily err on one side or the other. Apparently Connecticut has a statute forbidding people to dig into medical records that cover individuals long since deceased, keeping historians from researching information about Civil War soldiers in order to study post-traumatic stress disorder. But now the state is considering a bill that would allow medical and mental health records to be released five decades after an individual’s death. That seems more sensible.

Now here’s a shocker: In order to balance revenues and expenses, budgeters can be inclined to underestimate the need for overtime dollars. In California, though, the governor’s budget estimated that it will take over $200 million to pay overtime for correctional officers, while the Legislative Analyst’s office says that figure is double the accurate one. The analyst’s office indicated that the department has a good chunk of money already earmarked to fill vacant positions -- and that cash can be used to pay for a good portion of the predicted overtime.

Who knows who’s right? We don’t. But we are deeply intrigued by the idea that agencies can effectively control funds allocated for vacant positions and then not even consider utilizing them when it comes time to ask for new funding.

In an Illinois "compliance examination" of the governor's office, the Auditor General found 20 of the 55 state boards, commissions, councils and committees it examined didn’t have the required number of members. To its credit, the governor's office has been trying to make the appointment process for these boards and committees more transparent and inclusive and has set up a public website to broaden the pool for appointments. It’s also been trying to eliminate duplicative or obsolete boards. Still, the recently released audit says: "Failure to appoint members to boards, commissions, councils and committees may prevent the board, committee, council, or commissions from carrying out their mandated duties."

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"Chaos happens. Let's make better use of it." -- Technology historian Edward Tenner in a TED Talk about unintended consequences

It wasn’t so very long ago that public-sector pensions were a murky little backwater of city, county and state finances. Now, you can hardly open up a newspaper without finding an article about pension problems in any given region. Ultimately, it’s all pretty complicated stuff, which is why we were pleased to come across a document called “Objectives and Principles for Funding Public Sector Pension Plans” by the American Academy of Actuaries.

Here are some of the most significant guidelines for public pension plans, according to the Academy:

  • Target the accumulation of sufficient assets for an employee by retirement and establish a plan to make up for any variation in actual assets within a reasonable period;
  • Recognize that several competing objectives need to be balanced, including security for the promised benefits, making contributions stable and predictable and ensuring that the costs borne by different generations of taxpayers and employees are handled equitably;
  • Communicate how the objectives have been balanced and how the costs are expected to be met;
  • Identify any risks that could make it difficult to achieve the objectives;
  • Provide for clear disclosure of the effectiveness of contribution policies over time; and
  • Ensure that funding results are monitored and adjustments made as needed.

Let’s say you’re running a large city and want to get more revenue from parking meters. The obvious solution would be to raise rates. But Cincinnati is taking a different route -- and it makes a lot of sense to us. The mayor there, John Cranley, is going to try to persuade the City Council to purchase $2 million worth of new meters that accept credit cards. He also wants to hire more enforcement officers, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. The idea is that more people will wind up paying full fare for the time they spend parking at a meter and that will pick up revenues.

As just about all governments try to figure out how to further contain health costs, we keep wondering about the impact of the relentless urge to merge hospitals and hospital systems. There’s a lot of debate about whether this trend will ultimately control costs or not. With that in mind, we’re going to keep you posted about the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission, which has stipulated that a proposed merger must be able to show that there will be savings -- and that the customers will reap the benefit.

This is easier said than done. But under all circumstances, it’s wise to keep that goal at the forefront when looking at organizational changes -- especially those that could have the opposite effect.

Delaware’s auditor wants to raise employees’ pay by 15 to 30 percent, pointing to the fact that his office currently has 22 professional audit positions of which ten are vacant. According to an article in the Delaware State News, the state’s Joint Finance Committee has refused the move amid accusations that this was a politically based proposal. Others argue that it was simply a function of tight fiscal times, in which auditors need to bear burden like all other agencies.

We’re not going to dig into the depths of Delaware’s decision-making process or point any fingers, but we do think it’s appropriate to point out that a half-filled auditor’s office can hardly do the work it’s supposed to. And while that shortcoming may be invisible to many taxpayers, ultimately they’ll wind up paying for it in the long term.

In the last B&G Report, we asked readers what they thought about the idea of “Kickstarters for Government.” The idea was to raise small donations from multiple citizens in order to afford a relatively cheap civic amenity. All volunteer. We were pleased to see the number of responses, including some that pointed out ways that their community was already doing just that. We’ll be putting together a column about this topic, which will appear both in the print magazine and on the website. In the meantime, we encourage B&G Readers to add your two cents about the topic now.

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