When Budget Cuts Threaten a Sense of Community

Plus: Overworked Officers, Unanticipated Outcomes, And More
March 18, 2010 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

The annual July 3 fireworks in Chicago's Grant Park were canceled a few weeks back. "The bad economy has challenged us to do more with less," said a representative of the Chicago Mayor's Office of Special Events. While there's still a chance that some private funds could come in and save the 30-year-old tradition, the decision stands for now.

We certainly understand the idea that when it comes to a choice between library hours, sanitation and fireworks, the beautiful multi-hued displays can wind up on the bottom of the list.

But then we read a column by Jerry Newfarmer, president of Management Partners in Cincinnati, in Public Management magazine. He argues that "community" activities like fireworks shouldn't be undervalued. "These services are the very activities that bind us together as a community and reinforce our shared sense of place and who we are. ... The money that we budget for community groups to put on these events (and for local staff overtime) to make them possible is just as important a public service as are the more traditional city and county services delivered directly by the staff."

We get Newfarmer's point of view, too. Tell us what you think.

Benchmarking is a tricky business, particularly when it's difficult to get comparative information about similar jurisdictions. But if you're looking at your police or fire departments relative to those of other communities, the International City/County Management Association has just come out with a terrific resource. According to an ICMA release, the group's "Police and Fire Personnel, Salaries, and Expenditures" survey offers "a detailed snapshot of local police and fire departments, including examinations of salaries, personnel, service provision and delivery, and departmental size and composition." Some interesting data are available free, and the complete dataset can be purchase.

One little thing worried us. We noted in the aggregated data that 0.2 percent of respondents have police officers who work a 24-hour shift on an average day. That works out to only two or three communities, which isn't a heck of a lot. But we'd like to know what kind of vitamins those protectors of the peace are taking.

Back in August 2008, when Utah became the first state to go to a 10-hours-a-day, four-day work week, one of the concerns was that citizens would find themselves receiving inferior services. After all, most state offices would be effectively closed on Fridays. Turns out, according to State Legislatures magazine, that clients of the state seem happy, by and large. Here's what the publication reports: "Citizens, as well, support the new schedule since state services are now available for longer days, allowing them to get what they need without having to take time off from work."

Our favorite quote of the week refers to the unequal playing field between the private sector and the public sector in creating partnerships: "Putting us against the investment banks in a deal like that is like having little leaguers play the New York Yankees," Chicago Alderman Thomas Allen told Bloomberg BusinessWeek .

And the week's most depressing quote comes in reference to a legislative proposal to control the huge amounts of new debt Arizona has been accumulating for years: Arizona state senator Ron Gould, in the Arizona Capital Times , asked, "Since we ignore the Constitution now, why would we not just continue to ignore the Constitution if we passed this bill?"

Money. Money. Money. When a government increases efficiency, it's usually able to do one of two things: save money or offer better services. A conversation we just had with Mark Abrahams, president of the the Abrahams Group consulting firm, jolted us into the realization that saving money has become by far the most desirable of the two benefits for cities, counties and states (though many people would love to save money and improve services simultaneously).

This isn't a surprise, given the current economy. But it's still a little worrisome. We hope that when the economy really turns for the better, governments won't have gotten so accustomed to focusing fundamentally on the bottom line that they neglect the idea that taxpayers are often willing to pay a little more for better services -- as long as they really are genuinely better.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently signed an executive order setting in motion a review of his state's 700 boards and authorities, to see if any particular ones should be disbanded. This is a very good idea. It's remarkable how many boards and commissions exist in name and draw financial resources -- and don't accomplish anything. Some have a whole bunch of positions, all of which are vacant. We wrote a column for Governing about this last August, and we found that states like Washington and Maine had gone through a process like this to good effect.

If only we got paid for unused vacation time, we could have retired last Tuesday. But aside from our own fantasies of days on the beach, reading slim novels and eating bon-bons, we don't blame governments for offering compensation for unused vacation days. In fact, the practice has always made sense to us -- if only as an incentive to get people to show up for work every day. (Which shouldn't be so hard, but apparently it is.) But when there are abuses of this policy, they can be doozies. A late February article from California Watch indicated that one worker in that state was able to use combined vacation and compensatory time to leave the job with more than $800,000. That's the extreme, of course, but, according to the piece, "In the past four years, nearly 500 government workers earned six-figure paychecks mostly for unused vacation. ... Many of those cash payments appeared to violate rules designed to limit how much vacation time state workers can accumulate during their careers. Most employees are allowed to bank 80 days worth of unused vacation, but records show that supervisors routinely allow them to exceed that amount. And the problem is growing, state payroll officials said. Personnel documents show that as of December 2008, more than 14,000 active state employees had already exceeded their vacation caps."

In 1913, Minnesota Governor Adolph Eberhart set up an Economy and Efficiency Commission in that state. There followed 43 long years in which similar efforts were not undertaken. But since then, there has been a steady procession, and the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library has put together a list. How many of these have made a lasting difference? We don't know. But it's our bet that pretty much nobody knows. If we're wrong, we apologize. But if we're right, then maybe states like Minnesota should take a good long look at the reasons such panels, commissions and studies work and don't work -- before embarking on any new ones.

A couple weeks ago, we promised to provide you a summary of some of the exciting "civics" programs to get young people to understand, and maybe even engage in, government. Fortunately, the notes kept coming in with more recommendations. Unfortunately, that meant it's taking a little longer to put together the list. Stay tuned!