Taxi Triumphs

Plus: Unreported swine flu stats, outsourced water bills, and more
November 19, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, where we live, pushed for an initiative that would allow people to pay for their taxi cabs with credit cards, we didn't think much about it. Seemed like a nice convenience, but we had always paid for cabs with cash, and saw little reason to change. Now, it turns out that this particular innovation may have been the salvation of the cab industry in New York.

According to a piece in the New York Times , "the back-of-the-cab swipe has emerged as an unlikely savior for New York's taxi industry, even as other cities' fleets struggle to find fares in a deep recession. Overall ridership and revenue have increased. More and more fares are being paid with credit cards, even for shorter rides. And tips for drivers, usually an early casualty of tough times, are up sharply, double over the pre-plastic days."

Other big cities, with struggling cab industries, are now following suit. The funny part? This move was originally opposed by the taxi industry in New York City.

We were a little startled to read that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has only gotten data from 29 states and one territory about deaths and hospitalizations from the H1N1 virus. In the final analysis, maybe that doesn't matter. The CDC apparently comes up with total figures based on models, not the actual numbers reported. But it sure makes us wonder what's going on in the public health departments of the remaining states that has prevented them from reporting in.

We've mentioned the possibility that outsourcing jobs may sometimes prove more expensive than keeping them in-house. We continue to come across examples of states and cities where that has become evident. But in a friendly chat with Elliott Brack, the editor of the GwinnettForum, a "moderated forum of public opinion" in Gwinnett County, Georgia, we came across another issue. Water bills from his town of Norcross emanate from Texas. His feelings about that: "Why are we sending the business to mail out our water bills to a Texas firm, when we could keep the job here? It might be less expensive, but it bugs me." We don't know how widespread his sentiment is, and Brack, himself, concedes that it "may sound like too much of a local slant." But we'll bet he's far from alone.

Life expectancy is a neat way to compare states, or to compare the United States to other nations. But it turns out that it may be a mediocre way to look at health care statistics, according to an excellent piece in the November issue of the Atlantic.

Here's what author Megan McArdle had to say: "Life expectancy, for example ... is a metric on which the United States does relatively poorly, causing us endless consternation. A few years ago, however, the health care economists Robert Ohsfeldt and John Schneider recalculated the numbers after controlling for deaths from homicides and traffic accidents. Because these things tend to strike very young people, they can have an outside impact on mortality statistics. ... And if you remove them from the picture, say Ohsfeldt and Schneider, America jumps to the top of life-expectency tables."

We decided to do a little quick and dirty comparison ourselves. We took a look at the relative life expectancies of the states (and Washington, D.C.). According to data from Harvard, the lowest expectancies could be found in D.C., Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and South Carolina. Three of those five, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, were also standouts in the rate of violent crimes. Washington D.C. had by far the highest rate, South Carolina was second and Louisiana was sixth. While the other two states fell in the middle of the pack, it does feel like folks should be pretty careful about using life expectancy as a measure of health care.

While the federal government provides some form of oversight over many forms of transportation, local officials retain the task of overseeing subway systems. There's no good reason this setup couldn't work. But we were stunned by a paragraph in a recent Washington Post story that read as follows: "[For Washington, D.C.'s Metro system] the monitoring body is the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which has no employees, office or phone number. It also has no direct regulatory authority over Metro. Committee members work for local and state transportation departments, and much of their work is contracted out."

Well, at least the committee is immune to layoffs.

"We can't help but wonder if the general impression that the economy has turned is going to make it trickier for public-sector leaders to sell taxpayers on the kinds of management initiatives necessary for tough times." That's what we said in the B&G Report a couple weeks ago. Ted Zaleski, director of management and budget for Carroll County, Maryland, responded from a practitioner's point of view. This is what he had to say in response:

"This is absolutely a concern of mine and I have been trying to keep the idea in front of the County Commissioners, because I fully expect them to be challenged by exactly these public perceptions. Trying to explain . . . the timing disconnect is pretty much impossible, though I try anyway. The problem is exacerbated by people beginning to grab on to pieces of good news even as tremendous uncertainty still exists in the larger economy.

"Differences in jurisdictions further complicate things. In Maryland, counties rely primarily on property tax [not] on income tax. The impact of falling house prices is just beginning to hit property tax revenue and will take years to play out. Other areas rely more on sales tax, which could recover more quickly. Even in Maryland we will see differences in counties where jobs are heavily dependent on construction and manufacturing versus those driven by the Federal government.

"We are facing significant change and that is going to be difficult enough. I am not looking forward to battling perceptions when our difficulties continue past the end of the recession."

So you thought the troubles in the automobile industry were largely a problem facing Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and, to a lesser degree, other states' revenues from taxing car dealers. Well, according to the National Association of Counties, there's another ramification. In many counties and cities, people pay property taxes on their cars. But if they hang onto their old vehicle instead of buying a new one, those taxes are significantly lower, depriving counties of much needed revenues just as the states are cutting back on funds.

More good news for the future of performance measurement. A little while back, we wrote a column for Governing that expressed our belief that tough economic times are good for the future of results-informed budgeting. Now, we've come across another glimmer of positive news. Apparently, studies are showing that 15- to 25-year-olds are far less partisan than past generations. Instead of believing that Republicans or Democrats have the solutions to what ails us, they're inclined to look for pragmatic, provable solutions. And isn't that what results-informed decisions are all about?

Sometimes positions are vacant while waiting for someone to fill them. All too often, they're vacant for long periods of time, and the dollars allocated to those jobs become an extra pot of unallocated cash for agencies. Nebraska state Senator Heath Mello and some of his colleagues grew concerned about that issue in their state, in some part, we hear, because of a Governing column we wrote about the topic. The Nebraska Legislature required that the Department of Administrative Services create reports about vacancies quarterly.

So far, two good things have happened. By far the most significant is that Nebraska has the opportunity to use data in order to get better control over its fiscal house. The far littler thing is that it made the two of us feel good when a local newspaper reporter attributed the senator's work to ours.

But every silver lining has a cloud. The Lincoln Journal Star writes that the first report "is not all that useful. Much of the information is wrong" For example, according to the newspaper, the report "shows no one working for the state college system [and no one] working at computers in the system office in Lincoln." Other examples abound.

According to the Journal Star, the director of the Department of Administrative Services blames the mistakes on the agencies and commissions, and maintains that the report gives the state a great many insights into the issue. It turns out that the Department of Administration provided about 10 training sessions for agency level employees about how to provide the information in the report. For reasons we can't fathom, that doesn't seem to have done the trick.

We think the state deserves a break. It's certainly a pity that the report contains inaccuracies - that doesn't do anyone any good. But this was a first report and the state's budget director Gerry Oligmueller is hopeful that in the wake of this unfortunate public snafu, agencies will be more inclined to provide correct data in the future.

Meanwhile, we'd much rather see a shaky start than none at all.

Bitter Irony of the Week department, as pointed out in the Anniston (AL) Star . According to the U.S. Census, "Residents and companies in Alabama ... pay less in state and local taxes than their counterparts in any [other] state." And here's the kicker (literally, for some of the residents): Alabama taxes its working poor more than any other state.

Research Assistant: Heather Kerrigan