Public Spending: Is a Little Warmth a Good Investment?

Plus: The problem with school vending machines, a technology reality check, and more
October 8, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

The city manager of Anchorage has clamped down on the use of city credit cards, according to an Anchorage Daily News article. And we fully understand the motivation for making sure that any use of public funds is guarded vigilantly -- and that city credit cards are one source for potential misuse.

But in the piece, city auditor Pete Raiskum said the following: "Some of that stuff is truly questionable. If one of my staff's wife gets sick and goes to the hospital, should I use a [city credit card] to buy flowers for my staff's wife? Do you think that's an appropriate use of public funds? Is this official business?"

We're pretty sure these were rhetorical questions, but we'll answer anyway: Yes, Mr. Raiskum, we think this is a perfectly sensible use of public funds. A few bucks on flowers can buy an employee's hard work and loyalty for years. Forget about other factors. We think this is a smart investment -- easily as smart as handing out little plaques for performance. Perhaps guidelines should be established for acceptable reasons to use city funds on small gracious gestures like flowers. And steps should be taken to make sure they're followed.

What do you think? Should cities and states spend money on this kind of thing? Tell us why we're right or wrong at

We predicted last month that many state and local budgets were going to turn out to be out of balance pretty soon thanks to overstated revenues, understated expenses and so on. This seemed so obvious to us at the time that we can't take a whole lot of psychics' pleasure in seeing signs that we were right. But just to amplify the point, here's an example that recently popped up in Louisiana. According to the Baton Rouge Advocate , just a quarter of the way into the state's fiscal year, Louisiana is seeing a "pretty significant shortfall" in the amount budgeted for Medicaid, according to state Health and Hospitals Secretary Alan Levine. Levine apparently blamed delays in implementation of cost-cutting measures and "a higher level of spending in the program that provides community services for the developmentally disabled," according to the Advocate.

This is just a straw, we believe more than ever, in a wind that will be blowing from coast to coast in the coming weeks.

Efforts in New York and other states to control obesity among young people are laudable. But in this case, it turns out that the devils are in the details (or more precisely, the Devil Dogs, Yodels and crunchy salty snacks of all kinds).

A recently released audit by New York Comptroller Thomas Napoli revealed that while most school districts are doing a pretty good job of meeting federal standards for healthy school lunch programs, brightly lit vending machines are competing for students' appetites -- and contributing to excess poundage. Apparently, out of 200 vending machine items tested, only nine met the suggested guidelines of the Institute of Medicine. For the most part, the machines were filled with ice cream, chips and all the other things that can make life worth living for a teenager.

Our first thought as we began reading the audit was that the cafeterias must be making a bunch of money from the vending machines, and that was why they didn't particularly want to control their stock. But the audit later indicated that only about 2 percent of cafeteria budgets came from the machines.

With all the reasonable concern about the safety of physical infrastructure like bridges and roads, we've long thought that the information technology infrastructure doesn't receive enough attention. Remember Y2K? Folks were nearly hysterical about the dangers if there were major computer breakdowns in states and cities. But the general press, at least, has hardly considered the topic since.

With that in mind, here's a recent release from the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, which has joined with other national organizations in recognizing October 2009 as National Cyber Security Awareness Month.

According to the release, "As resources for the states, NASCIO has launched an informational website and produced a compendium of state cyber security awareness examples. The National Cyber Security Alliance and Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC) has promotional materials, educational toolkits and other resources available for download." You can get more information at NASCIO's site.

Why don't local governments let you know how much time you're going to be on hold awaiting a representative to help? We asked that question a couple of weeks ago, and we got responses from a handful of places that, in fact, do just that. But we were particularly impressed by a note from Darby DuComb, director of the customer service bureau in Seattle. She not only told us that Seattle has offered this feature, but gave us some insights into the real world of how such useful technologies can actually work. Here's an excerpt from her note: "When we are really overburdened, callers will get the message that the wait time will be X or more than X (but it is not always particularly accurate which makes callers very upset sometimes.) ... we seemed to experience a high number of abandoned calls -- like your wait will be less than 3 minutes (which is our shortest setting), then everyone just hangs up. It would be nice if our technology were a little better, which is in the works."

The disconnect between the desire to build grand buildings and new roads and the knowledge that they'll cost a lot to run has long been a hobgoblin of state and city finance. How many roads have gotten built over the past decade that are now falling into disrepair for lack of sufficient maintenance money? How many public buildings -- including prisons -- are underutilized for lack of the money to take full advantage of their capacity? Too many.

And now, we read in a piece by the Sun-Times Media Group that Illinois has set aside some $50 million to build new libraries. We like libraries. But this is being done at a time when localities in the state are begging for enough dollars to keep existing libraries open in the first place. As the Sun-Times piece reports, "Officials in the William Leonard Public Library District in Robbins had to launch a fundraising campaign last week and literally beg for donations to keep the library open through September."

In Illinois, as in many other places, the budget for new capital spending is separate from the general fund budget used to keep things running. There are a bunch of sensible reasons why this should be the case. But that doesn't mean the two can't be coordinated in a sensible way by legislatures and city councils.

A tale of one city. So, like many Manhattanites, our son never needed or wanted a drivers license. But now, 22 years old and out of college, he's moving to Los Angeles. So this summer he set about earning a license. He took lessons, drove with us and practiced his parallel parking with the intensity of someone learning to fly a fighter jet.

As far as we could see, he was good to go. He wound up taking the test twice. He failed the first time. Passed the second. But there's a little more to the story. The first examiner didn't greet him in any way. She brushed past his father with no recognition of an outstretched hand. She never used his name. He failed. The second examiner greeted him warmly, by name, and told him she was happy to see him. She also acknowledged his father's existence with a friendly smile and a hello. That time, our son passed.

Coincidence? We think not. But that's not the point. Maybe he deserved to fail the first time. We weren't in the car. But it feels to us that part of an examiner's job is to remember that they are providing a service to citizens who deserve to be treated with civility -- whether they can make a three-point turn or not. And that general rule should apply to all city and state employees. Governors and mayors take note: When someone is ticked off at impolite employees, whether secretaries or tax assessors, the only place they can take it out is often at the ballot box.

Since no two cities or states are identical, we've long railed about the use of the phrase "best practices," preferring to use "practices that work" or "demonstrated practices" or anything else that doesn't seem to pretend to live in Panacea-land.

Well, now we're alarmed to see the beginning of another new phrase that makes even less sense than "best practices." Here it is: "Innovative best practices." We don't quite grasp how something could be simultaneously innovative and thoroughly proven. (We won't name names here, but we've heard the phrase a few times, and just got an offer to provide some "innovative best practices" from one of the biggest government-membership organizations around.)

Just thinking aloud. We keep reading about all the bargains available to careful shoppers out there, provided by retailers desperate to stay profitable, even if margins grow razor thin. And there are sure lots of unemployed folks out there who would appear happy to take a good job -- even if it's at a lower salary than they'd gotten in the past. So are cities, counties and states benefiting from any of this? We'd expect there to be some unanticipated savings available, but we don't hear anyone talking about them. Maybe we just haven't been listening in the right places.

Research Assistant: Heather Kerrigan