Local officials need governance resources

By Cate Long
September 22, 2012

Every one of the 19,492 municipal and 16,519 township governments in America is unique. But, when it comes to the fiscal affairs of these entities, there are a lot of similarities. Almost all local governments provide fire and police protection, libraries and parks, tax collection and public works like street maintenance and garbage collection. Generally the 50,432 school districts in the U.S. act as independent political entities with their own budgets, tax collection and bond issues.

Most of these municipal governments and school districts are governed by everyday citizens who are elected to positions of public authority. They rely on paid administrators to efficiently provide public services and educate children, but they must still make important decisions about taxation, approve personnel contracts and agree to bond issuance and refinancings. For officials who may be working part-time on the job with scant experience, these can be daunting responsibilities.

In the personal finance space there are loads of websites like Mint.com and HelloWallet.com that help individuals monitor, plan and project their expenses. I wondered if there were comparable ones in muniland to help small governments and school districts get a sense of how their spending patterns compare to other comparable municipal entities.

After searching around I found several great sites for municipal officials, bond market participants and interested citizens to get a better understanding of the fiscal picture of municipal entities.

The Pioneer Institute of Massachusetts has an excellent tool called Muni Guide Utilty that allows officials in one Massachusetts town or city to compare their economic and fiscal data with other cities of comparable size. This tool allows the user to drill down to specific budget line items to see how they compare to others. It also offers a more general reference guide to budget issues called “Guide to Sound Fiscal Management for Municipalities”.

California aggregates data from all local government financial statements on the State Comptroller’s website. Data is broken down on issues like the percentage of voter-approved indebtedness versus property tax valuations. According to the Comptroller’s data, California municipalities spend 17.41% of general revenues on police expenditures and 6.86% of aggregate city revenues on fire protection. You quickly get a sense that the city budget of bankrupt San Bernardino was out of balance when you compare their 72% of the general fund on fire and police, when the average for California cities is spending 24%.

The International City/County Management Association offers its Municipal Yearbook 2012. It includes chapters on health care coverage for municipal employees, compensation guidelines for chief administrative officers (think Bell, California paying it’s city manager $800,000 a year), police and fire personnel expenditures and a directory with the 79 professional, special assistance, and educational organizations that serve local and state governments.

The National League of Cities just published an excellent survey of cities’ fiscal conditions and steps municipalities are taking to manage through the recession. The report covers revenue and tax trends and reductions in state aid.

Governing a municipality is hard and complex work. As states push more fiscal responsibility down to the local level, they would do well to increase the amount of support and training they provide to local officials. Local public servants are the frontline of good government and efficient use of tax dollars. They need all the help they can get.

2 comments

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With a growing number of local governments facing significant fiscal stress, State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli announced plans today to implement an early warning monitoring system that would identify municipalities and school districts experiencing signs of budgetary strain so that corrective actions can be taken before a full financial crisis develops.

http://osc.state.ny.us/press/releases/se pt12/092412.htm

Posted by Cate_Long | Report as abusive

I think you’re comparing apples and oranges with your data on Stockton public safety costs versus other CA cities. The Stockton figure is for the general fund but the Controller (not Comptroller) looks at all operating funds, which can include a variety of services outside the general fund.

A better comparison would be between the Controller’s all cities data and the city detail data for Stockton in the same report. The Stockton data is missing from the 10-11 report but if you go back to the 09-10 report it appears public safety accounted for 45% of operating expenditures for Stockton vs. 28.7% for all cities. Even this comparison, though, is questionable, as the operating expenditure denominator can include different types of services for different entities.

A more important point may be that spending 3/4 of your general fund budget on public safety isn’t all that unusual for California cities, and it’s getting more common every day as cuts are disproportionately made to non-public safety services.

Posted by Muni_observer | Report as abusive