When Revenues Don't RSVP

Plus: Useless news bulletins, the tweeting-texting-traffic conundrum, and more.
September 10, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Here's a prediction: We think that over the course of the next six months, newspapers will be full of headlines talking about revenues that didn't ever materialize and savings that fell far short of predictions. Many budgets, we believe, will turn out to have been balanced on wings, prayers and desperation.

Exhibit A comes from Tim Schaeffer, a state senator from Ohio, who wrote in a recently penned op-ed: "As you might recall, the governor reversed his campaign promises and proposed placing thousands of [video lottery terminals] at Ohio's seven horse-racing tracks in order to raise an estimated $933 million during the biennium. However, during special committee hearings in the Senate to more thoroughly discuss the proposal, testimony from state officials, track owners and other interested groups raised more questions than answers.

"Most experts do not see $933 million as a realistic income number. Concerns were raised that the governor's revenue estimates for VLTs were too generous, that legal challenges could delay implementation of the plan and that the deal left racing tracks and the horse industry shortchanged. Details of the plan about how much money would be used for purses, breeding programs and other facets of the horse-racing industry remain unclear."

Whatever happens to video terminal revenues in Ohio, we fear that there are going to be a lot of disappointments coming in many states.

So there we were on the seemingly endless I-80, taking our daughter Sandy back to college at the University of Wisconsin. While traveling through beautiful green Pennsylvania, forward motion came to an absolute standstill. After 15 minutes or so, we could see billowing black smoke ahead and we observed our fellow motorists leaving their cars to walk their dogs. We began to really wonder what was happening.

We recalled seeing signs announcing that one could get traffic information by tuning in on a special designated radio station. "Great!" we thought, so we turned on the radio. What we heard was this: "Attention, motorists traveling on Interstate 80, westbound. Due to construction between milepost 106 and milepost 95 the left lane is closed to motorists. Be aware of stops or slow-moving traffic."

Well, this sure as heck didn't describe the parking lot we found ourselves in. But the message continued. "This message will be updated to keep you informed of changes." When was this particular information updated? The message told us: "August 11, 2009." That was about two weeks before we were on the road.

Here's our take on this. If a state is going to offer a really useful service, it should make sure it's really useful. Otherwise, it will agitate more citizens than it will help.

In contrast, North Carolina is taking steps to offer easily accessible, real-time traffic updates on its Twitter page. It's an impressively in-depth effort, with a dozen separate feeds motorists can follow, depending on which area of the state they're interested in. But nothing is simple. As the Raleigh News & Observer points out, "So how long before people start getting cited under the new texting-while-driving ban because they were checking for traffic information?" Apparently, the state's solution, and a perfectly reasonable one, is to encourage travelers to check out the alerts before they leave their home or office.

A few weeks ago, we asked readers to give us some guidance about how long information stored on CDs would be available for use. We were thinking about the question in terms of how long a CD can be expected to last before physically degrading to the point of inoperability. Well, some of you responded with estimates for the number of years a CD will work. But many of you focused on a somewhat different -- but potentially more important -- topic.

Kevin Hipple, county manager of Hughes County, South Dakota, wrote, "Will there be a program available which can read, interpret and display the data in some sort of usable format at some time point in the future?"

Added Paul Donovan of the Vermont Department of Libraries, "We figure on ten years [at the outside] before we have to migrate the data to another physical format or newer retrieval/display software. It has less to do with the durability of the CD than it has to do with the evolving digital landscape."

And David Carmicheal, director of the Georgia Division of Archives and History, indicated that, "Archives across the country are working on this issue. It is bad enough to lose family photos because the hardware and software to read them no longer exists, but think about the deeds that your county clerk is happily scanning right now. What happens if you go to get a copy of that deed and you're told, 'Sorry. We saved those records in a file format that is no longer supported by the manufacturer. We can't give you a copy of your deed.' Archives are studying solutions ranging from open formats to migration strategies, but there is no one solution to this problem yet."

Carmichael referred us to a Web site that details how his state is tackling the problem.

Our favorite quote this month comes from the late British Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home, who seemed to be in synch with a great many current state and local leaders back in 1964 when he explained, "There are two problems in my life. The political ones are insoluble and the economic ones are incomprehensible."

An award for Understanding of the Public Sector should go to Archie Comics, for its Betty & Veronica Double Digest #170. This edition is the first of a four-part series in which Veronica takes on her dad, Mr. Lodge, over the building of an industrial park in a beautiful, pristine part of their town of Riverdale.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Archie Comics (and we suspect that's a small minority), most of them are concerned with topics like the love triangle between Archie, blonde good-girl Betty and vixenish, wealthy Veronica.

But listen to part of the introduction of this particular number: "When Veronica and her friends vow to save a nature preserve from being turned into an industrial park, they discover the issue isn't as black and white as they think; not only will the industrial park bring much-needed jobs to the out-of-work residents of Riverdale, it will also help lower property taxes."

Property taxes? In Archie Comics? We wish a lot of local news reports were as balanced as this comic book.

"Some inspectors are a Cadillac," Cleveland's Housing director Ed Rybka told the Plain Dealer . "Some are Edsels."

Rybka made this comment in the context of a Plain Dealer piece that showed that "many Cleveland housing inspectors continued to do far less work than their counterparts in other urban areas despite Mayor Frank Johnson's vow three years ago to make their performance a priority."

Rybka's honesty is to be appreciated. And there's little question that there are Edsels and Cadillacs in almost every organization. But the statistics uncovered by the newspaper were still pretty alarming. Apparently, some 26 inspectors averaged under 11 inspections a week in Cleveland. In Columbus, meanwhile, inspectors average eight to 15 inspections every day. It sure feels to us like in a time when every large city's budget is under strain, here's an area crying for a little tough love.

Transparency is a very pretty word, apparently. In fact, it seems like the cliché about Mom and apple pie could only be improved if Mom had to tell everyone about her college grades and the apple pie had full nutrition information attached. But often when the vision meets the real world, the results are lacking.

For example, a citizen group called Oklahomans for a Responsible Government reviewed the information available online about local school districts. The group discovered that out of 471 districts paying for technology directors, some 59 don't have Web sites yet. "No district had complete information regarding contracts, and only six had their annual audit posted online," the report said. "There are districts that have good websites, but lack information taxpayers need. If the football schedule can be posted, surely the board meeting schedule can, too. We found districts that have Twitter accounts, but nothing about a budget or how to contact board members."

How ticked off are citizens at their governments during this recession? We asked readers to respond to that query a little bit back. We got many answers that hit on a wide variety of topics, and a few interesting themes emerged. Some correspondents, such as Michael Embury, town manager of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, indicated that people were frustrated by the simple reduction in service quality, resulting in frustrations such as longer wait times. But he added, "Eventually, most people calm down and at least listen that a $1 million cut means something has to go."

What surprised us was the number of government employees who focused on the effects of the recession on government employees themselves. For example, writes John Tefejian, who handles information services for the Washington State Department of Licensing, "We have been spared, for the most part, cut backs. However, we did lose our contract developers, and we have a huge number of projects. ... The people here work hard and do great work. But the wheel keeps spinning faster."

Somewhat more frustrated was one Midwestern state official, who reported, "I go out in the public, my wife has a high profile private sector job, I am vague about what I do and who I work for as people are ticked off. They are worried and do not see how we will pay off the Stimulus Bill. Let alone how could we pay for Health Reform or pay the proposed tax to utilities to run their businesses. ... There is a tension that is building as we have backlogs in processing application for eligibility. State employees are frustrated as the employees who are left have to do the jobs of the staff that was laid off in addition to their workload."

One last note: This was the first series of comments we've received here in which a good number of respondents did not want to be quoted by name.

Beginning with this edition of the B&G Report, our Manager's Reading List is going to become a monthly, rather than a bi-weekly, feature. Keep your recommendations coming by e-mailing us. And check out our full list of must-reads for managers.

Research Assistant: Heather Kerrigan