Year-end financial reports are really important to government officials and budgeters, but they’re usually pretty hard for most everyone else -- including, sometimes, legislators -- to read. One way to help make the best use of these is to issue a “popular” report as well. These documents are generally filled with easy-to-understand charts and graphs, avoid financial jargon, and are far shorter and less detail-laden than traditional year-end reports.
But they haven’t caught on. The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) reported several years ago that many governments don’t bother to produce a popular report.
A couple of weeks ago, though, the New York City Comptroller’s office released its first-ever popular financial report. It provides an easy way to understand New York’s complex finances -- and to put them into context. The report uses colorful, simple graphs and charts to break up the city’s operating budget, showing, among other things, that more than a third of the budget goes to education.
One particularly useful feature in New York City’s report is a benchmarking section, which provides context on the city's size and the scope of its financial responsibilities by comparing its finances to two other large U.S. cities -- Chicago and Philadelphia. Their annual budgets are roughly similar to each other at about $3.4 and $3.2 billion, respectively. New York, on the other hand, has an annual budget of $77.5 billion, which is roughly 25 times larger than Chicago and Philadelphia's and even bigger than those of most states.
One of the information sources we treasure are the minutes from government committee, board or commission meetings. They can show how policymakers actually end up reaching decisions. But we’ve noticed that many legislative committees and state and local boards and commissions are woefully behind in putting up minutes of past meetings. Often, they fail to keep meeting minutes altogether -- like the Boston Board of Zoning and Appeals, which received notice last May that it had violated the Massachusetts open meetings law by not keeping minutes of its meetings for years. Although the board offered to supply audio recordings of its meetings, that didn't absolve it of the responsibility to provide written records, the AG said.
It’s also troublesome that some government minutes are so puny that they provide little more information than the meeting agenda. For example, we were recently researching jail management for a column and found that the meeting minutes for the county affairs committee in the Texas House of Representatives amounted to little more than a paragraph summary for a three and a half hour meeting.
“I’m amazed by people who say they have nothing to do with government. There is no aspect of your life that is not in some way influenced by government or government policy or laws established by government. ... Yet many Americans choose to yield their powers to others by failing to participate in the politics of government.” -- Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards
Municipal golf courses are having hard times, which presents a conundrum for cities that house them. Traditionally, most city-run golf courses have been self-supporting. But when they’re not, the city is faced with the question of whether it should subsidize a service that can easily be described as a luxury even while trying to figure out how to pay for sufficient police and firefighters.
This is an increasingly common problem as the number of golfers in this country has declined from 30.6 million in 2003 to 24.7 million in 2014, according to the National Golf Foundation. That’s nearly a 20 percent drop. A recent audit report in San Jose revealed even steeper reductions (ranging from 28 percent o 42 percent) in use of that city’s golf courses compared to the early 2000s.
Because of the drop-off in players, the city spent $2.2 million to subsidize them in 2015. The auditor broke this down to a $38 subsidy for every golf round played on one of its three courses and $33 per round at another. (The third is subsidy-free). Debt service on two of the courses is $21 million, which will be paid out through 2031.
The audit recommends that the city start planning strategically for the future of these golf courses -- deciding upfront whether it wants to continue subsidizing the sport, whether the golf courses could be consolidated, whether there's potential value in selling some of the land or sharing a portion of the space for other recreational activities like soccer. The audit also says that better oversight of finances and contracts would help, too.
As far as we can tell, Minnesota is the only state currently creating a “price of government” report that breaks out the amount of revenue that various levels of government -- including localities, school districts and the state -- raise. The state presents the result as a percentage of total statewide personal income. Minnesota projects the latest number at 15.2 percent. In other words, for every dollar that Minnesota taxpayers earn, they pay 15.2 cents to state, county, township and school districts for services that year.
Unlike a typical state annual report, the price of government also includes the tax revenue generated by the state's school districts, cities and towns. This provides a comprehensive picture of what Minnesotans pay in taxes to run their local and state government services.
This is really refreshing, since most of the studies done about state spending aren’t comparable one to the other. For example, Los Angeles County has a hugely expensive government, and its expenses aren’t included in California’s annual report. Connecticut, on the other hand, doesn’t include county governments in its annual report (because it doesn't have county governments).
Minnesota's most recent report shows a decline of 6.6 percent in the portion of personal income that's spent on government, compared with 10 years ago. That’s startling, especially in a state known for a relatively high tax burden.
One of the hottest topics in states and cities is cybersecurity. Missouri’s state auditor, Nicole Galloway, acknowledged that her state is at risk. After reviewing about 140 local and court audits, she found that major problems included failure to establish or adequately protect and change passwords; granting access to computer files to employees who had no need to see that information; a lack of automatic shut-down mechanisms for computers left unattended; and insufficient backups.
There are many concerns about service quality when states cut their budgets. Some repercussions can be truly alarming. In October, for example, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences came to the Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations with a problem, warning, dramatically, and in a memo laced with bold type, that its staff was being placed at risk of death.
At issue is a North Carolina statute that stipulates that venomous reptiles that are confiscated by law enforcement officials are to be taken to the museum “for housing and potential euthanasia,” according to Philip Carter, the chair of the museum’s advisory committee.
Funding from the state has dropped and Carter declared in a memo: “There simply is no safe way to handle, care for or euthanize a venomous reptile without appropriate facilities and without locally-available anti-venom.” The mandate to receive the venomous reptiles didn't come with funding for “this hazardous responsibility,” Carter said, and since the museum has no facilities to keep the confiscated reptiles, they're now housed in a small converted bathroom.
Carter urged the committee to address this issue in the legislature’s upcoming session “to eliminate the risk of public servant fatalities.”
A widely recognized challenge in U.S. health care is the fragmentation of physical and mental health services. A new study from the University of California, San Francisco, highlights the problems with this split.
The study looked at whether or not mental health patients are screened for diabetes. Although antipsychotic drugs increase the risk for type 2 diabetes, 70 percent of publicly insured people who were on those medications didn't get tested for diabetes. According to the study, which examined data from more than 50,000 publicly insured California mental health patients, one problem is that electronic mental health records aren't integrated with electronic physical health records and people seeking mental health treatment may have little contact with primary care doctors. Patients who had a primary care visit were more than two times as likely to be screened for diabetes.
There are a lot of reasons why states and cities add more job classifications to the list that's used to differentiate jobs for hiring or promotions. Sometimes, new classifications can create opportunities for employees to get jobs in a newly created, more highly paid classification. On other occasions, departments create new classes of jobs under the belief that it will help them to be more explicit when bringing in new employees.
But too many classifications can wreak havoc, according to a story in the Sacramento Bee. According to the piece, California has created so many job classifications that it's made it difficult to manage its HR system. With many classifications, for example, people may have to apply for several entry-level jobs individually when it would be more efficient to let applicants apply for multiple jobs with one application.
The issue in California sometimes borders on the farcical. While the state is trying to shrink its list of classes, and has gotten rid of 515 this year by eliminating classifications which didn’t actually apply to any workers, according to the Bee, the state now employs people as “armory custodians,” “custodians,” “museum custodians,” and “custodians (correctional facility).”This adds onto two more “janitor” classes positions that already existed.