Old-time retailers called it "the big pencil." That was the phrase for a buyer who purchased big enough quantities to force suppliers to offer really good discounts. The same notion has long made sense for cities and states, which can save money by combining purchases across agencies in order to get bulk discounts.
Here's a great example, from the Charleston Daily Mail in West Virginia: Agencies in Kanawha County have saved nearly $1 million on fuel costs over the past decade thanks to a bulk fuel-purchasing program that was set in motion about a decade ago. The assessor's office, sheriff's department, Parks and Recreation Commission, several volunteer fire departments and others, all participate — and benefit.
Doctors' notes and sick days: Last month we told B&G readers about an effort in Cleveland to cut overtime costs among firefighters. The key was requiring a doctor's note anytime a firefighter left work sick after starting a 24-hour shift. We repeated a quote from city safety director Martin Flask, which had originally appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, accouncing that between December 12 and May 12, there was a 70 percent decline in hours of sick leave which firefighters requested.
At the time, we asked B&G readers what they thought about this policy. We voiced several concerns of our own as well. The bulk of the responses we received did not, however, think our concerns had much merit and argued that Cleveland's approach certainly had merit. If you want to add your two cents, please email us. In the meantime, we're featuring a sampling of reader responses for your perusal.
No question that a great many jobs have been lost in education in the last few years, thanks to budget cuts. But are the commonly used numbers really what they seem? Apparently not, according to the Washington Post, whose Fact Checker column by Glenn Kessler recently dissected the numbers a bit. The data that you may have seen -- that 226,000 teacher have lost their jobs since February 2010 -- actually account for all people affiliated with the education field who have lost jobs. That includes cooks, administrators, nurses, janitors and more. Full-time teachers make up 50 percent of the lost jobs figure, which is still a lot.
Follow-through is key to the success of virtually every government program. Exhibit A comes from The Blade, in Toledo, Ohio: Apparently the Ohio Housing Financing Agency is obligated to make sure that the projects that are built using tax credits are checked out at least once every three years. Unfortunately, according to the Blade, that's just not happening. As a result of that and other factors, "more than 100 houses constructed or renovated with millions of dollars in taxpayer money are now boarded up, gutted or burned out, contributing to years of decline rather than the housing renewal that was hoped for and promised by city officials."
"Taxes are not good things, but if you want services, somebody's got to pay for them so they're a necessary evil."
--New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Here's a sad little irony. A great new app is being developed to help San Francisco police file reports from the field. This is just the kind of efficient, labor-saving advance that can help keep police on the streets and away from their desks. Its recent announcement was greeted with enthusiasm.
But there's a little snag. The city doesn't seem to have any budget for the smartphones necessary to use the new app. This is sort of like the first picture phones that were on display at the 1964 World's fair. They looked fantastic, but in the real world, they were pretty much worthless for any one individual, since nobody else had one.
According to California Watch, "The police department does not actually have plans or a budget to buy smartphones or other devices that would allow officers to use the app, according to Susan Giffin, the department's chief technology officer." Costs for the devices and calling plans are estimated to be at least $1.5 million a year.
[UPDATE: We called Ms. Giffin to clarify the issue. She explained that there is actually no current need for smart phones because San Francisco's new crime data warehouse is an Internet-based web portal that officers can access on a laptop from the field. Sixty police officers currently have laptops and the department is deploying 100 more. As for smart phones, money has been donated to create a mobile app for the future, but that’s still under development.]
How efficient and effective is privatization? That's one of the big questions of the day as cities and states debate privatization on a regular basis. The Tulsa Beacon recently featured a piece hailing privatization as a near-panacea, citing the example of Sandy Springs, Ga. According to the Beacon, "Sandy Springs, Georgia, population 94,000, has privatized most of its city operations. It has only seven city employees, one of whom is the city manager. It does not own a city hall, instead it rents the limited space it requires. It does not own a fleet of vehicles, and pays no pensions. It has a police and fire department, but only because insurance costs would have been too high for those services to be contracted out to a private company.
"Virtually all other services that would normally be provided by city government are competitively contracted out to private companies. They even give a contract to losing bidders to take the place of winning bidders should they fail to meet their obligations. Even city employee contracts come up for renewal once each year."
The results thus far, according to the Beacon, have been very favorable. But from our perspective, we'd like to look at Sandy Springs as a test case rather than a model. (The New York Times also recently profiled Sandy Springs.) We're going to keep track of that municipality for a good long while to see exactly how such an extreme approach really works out over time. And we'll report back what we find.
Interested in better ways to cut down on violence? Blueprints for Violence Prevention, a project of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado, held a conference in April that offered a great many presentations -- available online. It includes much material about evidence-based approaches. If this is a topic of interest to you, we'd strongly recommend you take a look.
Surveys from 2007 and 2010 indicate that about 20 percent of U.S. citizens age 18 to 64 visit the emergency room each year. According to data collected by the National Health Interview survey between January and June 2011, about 27 percent of them were admitted to the hospital in their last visit, indicating that a fair number of emergency room visits were probably unnecessary. Since emergency room care is a significant expense for Medicaid departments in the states, this is a matter of concern.
The natural question is this: Why didn't more of these individuals seek less expensive means of care? Turns out the answer varies depending on the kinds of insurance they have. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds the predominant answer for people without insurance is that they had no other place to go; most people on public insurance said their doctors' offices or clinics were not open. Folks on private insurance? They say they went the emergency room because only the hospital could help.
"Baby boomers comprise about one-third of the national workforce. But nearly half of all legislative staff responding to a recent [National Conference of State Legislatures] survey were 50 years of age or over," according to an item on NCSL's Thicket blog. The problem with the mismatch is pretty obvious. As the old-timers retire, there will be a powerful need to bring in more young people to work as legislative staff. We've known a great many people in those jobs, which can be challenging and fulfilling (if frustrating at times).
According to the Thicket: "To address this problem, Nancy Cyr, director of the Nebraska Legislative Research Office, launched an effort during her tenure as NCSL Staff Chair to develop a website with a series of videos that describe the dynamic, rewarding world of legislative service.
"After three years of work and the collaboration of hundreds of legislative staff around the country, the Legislative Careers website has now been launched. The site is designed to encourage college students, recent graduates and those looking for a career change to consider legislative service as a career. Colleges and universities will also find it useful in promoting legislative internship programs."