The Challenge of Saving Money on Police

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Scott SittigPolice service is often the most cherished and visible municipal service—and inevitably one of the costliest. When it comes to balancing local government costs and quality of life, law enforcement increasingly is part of the public conversation.  Too often, the immediate reflex is to equate cost savings in law enforcement with compromising public safety.  That need not be the case.

A dichotomy drives the challenge

First, there’s emotion involved.  We like the sense of security that comes with knowing an officer is patrolling our street.  Whether responding to emergencies and criminal activity or getting to know residents on a first-name basis, police form bonds and fill roles that many residents consider vital for their community.  Recently I learned some youths in my own neighborhood had accosted one of my neighbors. When I found out how intimately the police officers know the community and possible perpetrators, I could turn my attention away from being fearful for my family and instead focus on community advocacy and intervention.

Second, there are dollars and cents involved.  Local governments across the country are more constrained than ever by limited resources and rising costs.  In New York and New Jersey, for example, pension and other negotiated benefits are driving mandated annual increases that result in many governments bumping up against their state’s 2% cap on the growth in the tax levy. Plus in New York existing police union contracts are further insulated from certain cost pressures by law (i.e., Taylor Law, Triborough Amendment) and unions can exercise a binding arbitration process that has historically produced favorable outcomes for their members.

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No Economic Gold at the End of the Olympic Rainbow

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Scott SittigI love summer and I love sports.  2012 has already produced many sports highlights with I’ll Have Another winning 2/3 of horse racing’s Triple Crown, Tiger Woods’ renewed success on the golf tour, Roger Federer’s and Serena Williams’ record breaking tennis wins at Wimbledon, the mid-summer classic, baseball’s All-Star game and King James winning his first NBA title. And now it’s the Tour de France and, soon, the summer Olympic Games.

Big Sports Event = Big Economic Impact?

Sports spectaculars are often lauded for their economic impact. Does the reality match the claims? Victor Matheson, an economics professor at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts has analyzed the economic impact of “mega sporting events” like the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the All Star Game, and World Series. He finds many examples of major sporting events not living up to their pre-event hype.  For instance, Major League Baseball claims economic impact on cities that host the All-Star game in the neighborhood of $75 million in direct benefits. Matheson’s ex post research suggests that for the cities that hosted All-Star games between 1973–1997, average employment actually declined by a half percent.  Organizers of the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta suggested upwards of 77,000 new jobs would be generated. Matheson estimates that as few as 3,500 were actually created. Read more »

Great Leaders Don’t Rely on Data Alone

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Scott SittigEvidence-based decision making is best when data are properly used, when good judgment hasn’t been trumped by bad numbers, or good numbers twisted to support an inappropriate conclusion. Just collecting data, tying it to outcomes and using it to make comparisons isn’t enough.  Numbers must be accurate and they need context. Data are essential to great leaders, but numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Let’s say I wanted to invest in a technology company.  Being a devoted iPhone user, I am predisposed to liking Apple products.  With a few clicks of my mouse I find Apple has earnings per share (EPS) of $13.87.  Is this good?  I quickly search for Google and learn its EPS is at $8.75.  Should I be convinced that Apple’s numbers make it a better investment?

As a good consumer I should ask: Are the metrics accurate?  EPS is a well-known measure of corporate profitability and my source was reputable.  Are the metrics comparable?  In this case, yes, but only after I checked that the EPS numbers covered the same time period.   What do the metrics tell me?  They give me insight into Apple’s and Google’s profitability. Read more »

One Seneca Falls – from Concept to Reality

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Scott SittigOn January 1, 2012, the Town of Seneca Falls became a unified municipality for the first time since 1831.  Communities across New York State have their eye on Seneca Falls to see what lessons can be learned from the dissolution of the historic village.  As the largest village to dissolve in New York State, the process and outcomes will serve as a great test case for many years to come.  However, some may be prone to draw conclusions from the outcomes that aren’t warranted.

Dissolution studies in most villages are initiated by citizens or elected officials because they believe it will save them money.  The most common argument is that two layers of government are more expensive than one, and eliminating a duplicate layer must produce savings that will cause a tax bill to go down.  When CGR models the fiscal impact of dissolutions cost savings are typically modest, usually in the 3-10% range.  This was true in Seneca Falls as projected cost savings were a little over 7% of the combined budgets.  Cost savings was not what pushed the lever in favor of dissolution. Read more »

From Two to One: Redrawing the Boundaries of Batavia, NY

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Scott SittigIf we could redraw the map, we would never create the patchwork quilt of local governments we have now.  That’s a familiar refrain among people who observe local government—and not just in NYS.   But the opportunity for a complete overhaul of the current – inefficient – system in many states rarely comes along.  Usually, the most that can be done is to “rearrange the furniture”.

The City and Town of Batavia, NY are an exception. They are two communities reinventing themselves.  The endeavor began in 2008 when Town and City leaders launched an exploration of service sharing options. From combining highway operations to merging the police department with the County Sheriff, the municipalities looked at feasible courses of action to save money.  By the end of the study, the idea of merging into one new city had captured their imaginations. Becoming one city presented the most opportunities to streamline the local governments, cut costs, enhance services and improve the communities’ image in the region. Read more »

Where are all the unemployed people?

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Scott SittigDid you know that the Finger Lakes Region is number one in New York State in sales of milk, fruits and nuts, corn and organic products?  I didn’t until recently.  Many of us know intuitively that agriculture is important to our region’s economy, not to mention our health and well being.  Just ask my wife who regularly braves the large crowds on Saturday at Rochester’s downtown farmers market for our weekly supply of produce.  Our region is rich in productive farmland. Despite a relatively short growing season, we produce one-third of the State’s ag output by value, benefiting people all over the country.
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What is a Taxing District?

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Scott SittigNew York’s Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo, has made government restructuring a centerpiece of his campaign for Governor—a necessary and welcome platform! As his Plan for Action notes, we’d never have designed the current system. Rationalizing local government can improve the quality of public services and save tax payers money.

Along the way, populist sentiment at the local level has fueled grass roots efforts to “reduce layers of government”.  Journalists and politicians alike have cited New York State’s numerous special districts as the source of our problem.  I read in a newspaper article recently:

“There are 62 counties, 62 cities, 553 villages, 698 school districts and 932 towns. And then the whopper: 6,927 special districts that include local lighting, sewer, fire, water and drainage districts.”

The article goes on to say that these 10,092 districts (outside NYC) “can tax people”.  From my vantage point, however, the problem is largely not with the special districts, even though the number of special districts is the most eye-catching.  In reality, not all of these 10,092 districts have the independent power to tax people.  Municipalities and school districts have the power to levy taxes.  Of the 6,927 special districts, approximately 870 are fire districts that also have the power to levy taxes.  But most of the remaining 6,057 special districts (60% of all districts) are governed by municipalities.

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