Why Governments Don’t Know Bridges Are Deteriorating

Plus more public-sector management news you need to know.
October 9, 2014
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

“There is no single un-reported or under-reported number on the balance sheets of state and local governments greater than the value of deferred maintenance of infrastructure,” according to Edward Mazur, senior advisor to the accounting firm Clifton Larson Allen and one-time member of the Governmental Accounting Standards Board.

It’s hard to understand how cities and states can manage their assets effectively without clear data about the amount of deferred maintenance accumulated. Consider: About one in nine of America’s bridges are “structurally deficient.” (This doesn’t mean the bridges are unsafe, but it does mean engineers have to inspect them every year because at least one load-carrying part is in poor condition.) Potholes blossom like malicious dandelions on the nation’s roads. Every time a government puts off maintenance on its infrastructure, the cost of rehabilitating those assets grows larger, like a credit card bill on which the holder makes only the minimum payment each month.

Deferred maintenance figures are also important for the legislature to allocate money appropriately, based on the highest priorities, said Lisa Washburn, managing director of Municipal Market Advisers. “But there’s very little to motivate legislators to allocate funds if they don’t know the extent to which infrastructure is broken or becoming obsolete. And there’s no way for the public or bond holders to understand what the costs will be, going down the road.”

This appears in the free Management e-newsletter. Subscribe here.

You might think this would be the kind of thing that the Governmental Accounting Standards Board would be all over. But the truth is that GASB has no active projects aimed at providing a standardized way for governments to determine and disclose their maintenance figures. GASB does provide a couple of options for disclosing some numbers regarding government assets -- but very few localities use the more informative of the two, and neither provides the kind of data that would allow users to really understand what’s going on.

Why not? For one thing, preparers have pushed back against such disclosures as overly time consuming and expensive. Then, too, GASB members have good reason for concern about  doing anything that can be seen as stretching the board’s scope and authority. It’s clear that there a lot of men and women in state and city government pushing to diminish GASB’s authority. So if GASB takes a swing at this ball and misses then it’s possible the board wouldn’t be able to return to this issue again. That’s a pretty chilling prospect.

GASB may tackle this one at some point in the future. As David Bean, director of research at GASB said, “If enough people asked for it, there may be opportunities to look at this topic in a less politically charged environment.”

Here’s a conundrum about which we’d like to hear thoughts from readers. In almost every article or conference about performance measurement, presenters will emphasize the need for leadership and champions for these efforts. At the same time, doesn’t that leave performance-based management efforts up for grabs every time Election Day rolls around? After all, elected champions and leaders can always be term limited out, or just lose an election outright. That could create a vacuum where their enthusiasm once dwelt.

Can performance measurement initiatives be institutionalized to the degree that they no longer need individual champions? We don’t know the answer. We only know that it’s a critical question if you believe in the power of measurement and accountability. Email us your thoughts.

What will the public-sector workforce of the future look like?  Sally Selden, a professor of management at Lynchburg College, speculates on that question in an excellent chapter of the new book,  Sustaining the States, published by the American Society for Public Administration.

Some of her predictions include: leaner state workforces in the Northeast and Midwest, older state workers, more diverse workers, more educated and skilled workers and more part-time state workers.

Clearly, the states that can keep up with, and take advantage of, these trends will find themselves at a competitive advantage to others in their search to hire and retain the best people.

"People want just taxes more than they want lower taxes." -- Will Rogers

There’s been a cascade of excitement about how cities, counties and states can use social media. Facebook, Twitter and the like can certainly personalize government and provide a means for very speedy interaction between, say, City Hall and residents. We, for example, found ourselves in Bethel, Conn., during Hurricane Sandy and relied heavily on the information the mayor of neighboring Danbury was tweeting. But what happens when the face of a city or state -- as shown on social media -- gets confused with actual government?

This is happened in Kettering, Ohio, according to an article in the Dayton Daily News. Apparently, Kettering citizens started reporting crimes to the city’s Facebook page, instead of to the police. Of course, Kettering police officials aren’t monitoring their institution’s Facebook page all day long, and so this is hardly a substitute for actually dialing 911. ”If you need a police officer to respond and investigate, our Facebook page is not the appropriate place to do that,” Kettering public information officer Ron Roberts told the Daily News. We don’t know if Kettering’s situation is a spreading phenomenon. But we’ll bet it is.

Our recommendation: People setting up public sector Facebook pages should consider including big bold type that says, “Please do not report emergencies on this page” followed by a list of the proper phone numbers for police, fire, etc.

The Affordable Care Act's Cadillac Tax has been a matter of concern to governments that offer higher than average health benefits to employees. This particular element of the ACA -- an excise tax on high cost health plans -- won't go into effect until 2018, but we've been watching for estimates on what it will cost. One was recently cited by the New Jersey Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission, which released a report on that state's ghastly problems with over-promised and under-funded health and pension benefits. Projected cost of the Cadillac tax to the state in 2018: $58 million. That will rise to $284 million in 2022.

Many of us believe that the Americans are  losing trust in government. That may well be true about the one that’s based in Washington, D.C. But, common knowledge may be misinformation. According to a recent Gallup poll 72 percent of Americans trust their local governments -- you’d hope it was higher, but it’s not awful. Perhaps more importantly, this number has barely changed over the course of the last decade. So we’re not in the midst of an epidemic of governmental mistrust, at least at the local level.

A scary story of this week comes from David Ammons, a professor at the University of North Carolina: “I remember years ago working as a staff member in a highly regarded municipal government. Several colleagues and I were huddled around a conference table working on an issue when one member of our group was called away to take a phone call. Upon his return, someone asked, ‘Was that the mayor calling?’ ‘No,’ came the response, ‘just a citizen.’”