Municipal officials rise to the challenge

September 30, 2012

A wave of innovation is sweeping American cities. Hard fiscal times and inexpensive technologies are prompting many governments to develop new and innovative programs. New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation are leading nationwide competitions to showcase innovative public programs, while two other states have rolled out tools for their cities and taxpayers. Righting the muniland ship will require stabilizing budgets and creating innovative ways to deliver public services.

Last week I wrote about local officials needing governance resources, and this week two of the largest states, Texas and New York, rolled out a few. The Houston Chronicle reported on the efforts of Texas State Comptroller Susan Combs to inform taxpayers about how much local debt they are responsible for:

Local governments are loading down Texas taxpayers with debt without providing them enough information about the amount already owed for roads, schools and other public projects, State Comptroller Susan Combs contends in a report released Wednesday.

The report, “Your Money and Your Debt,” notes that the current level of government debt approved by Texas cities and counties soared from 2001 through 2011, with tax-supported debt of cities increasing 126 percent to $27 billion. Tax-supported county debt, the report said, grew by 131 percent to $10.3 billion. “As taxpayers step into a voting booth to approve new debt, government should tell them how much they are already responsible for repaying and how much debt service is included,” Combs said in a statement.

In New York State, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli announced plans to implement an early warning monitoring system to identify municipalities and school districts experiencing signs of budgetary strain. From the Comptroller’s press release:

Using data already submitted by more than 4,000 local governments, DiNapoli’s office will calculate and publicize an overall score of fiscal stress for municipalities and school districts across the state. These scores will be used to classify whether a community is in “significant fiscal stress,” “moderate fiscal stress,” or “nearing fiscal stress.” This system is based on a process that DiNapoli’s auditors have been using to detect financial problems in communities.

The proposed system was announced in conjunction with a report released by DiNapoli today that examines the demographic and financial trends of New York’s 61 cities (excluding New York City) over the past three decades. The report found that many of New York’s cities are struggling to balance budgets and revitalize deteriorating local economies.

Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation has spent the last year accepting nominations for the smartest and most innovative government programs across the nation. On Wednesday they released their list of winners in a report “111 Bright Ideas.” Here are some especially compelling projects that help make governments more efficient and better serve their citizens:

  • Rhode Island Business Quick Start makes it easier for entrepreneurs to quickly identify the regulatory forms needed to start a business in Rhode Island. The tool boasts a searchable form library with forms grouped by popular business types, and a business wizard that asks questions based on the entrepreneur’s individual business needs and suggests applicable state forms to complete.
  • San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency launched video interviewing with community partners to improve customer service, enhance access to public assistance, and increase the efficiency of service delivery for clients who face transportation challenges or other barriers. Targeted populations include pregnant women, migrant farm workers, homeless clients, residents of battered women’s shelters and transitional housing, and both tribal and rural clients.
  • Community Choice Aggregation is a sustainability program that allows the village of Oak Park, Illinois to aggregate residential and small commercial electronic accounts to seek a better power supply rate. In the first quarter, Oak Parkers saved more than one million dollars. More than 200 Illinois communities followed suit, representing one third of the utility’s customers.
  • Bloomberg Philanthropies launched the Mayor’s Challenge to “find and spread innovative local solutions to national problems.” Of the 305 applications that the challenge received, the one judged to have the most innovative program will win $5 million. Tulsa, Oklahoma was chosen as a great example of creativity and team work:

Last year, [Tulsa] Mayor Bartlett invited city workers and private contractors to bid on the electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and carpentry work at Tulsa City Hall. In the end, Tulsa’s existing public maintenance staff submitted a more competitive bid than the four private firms that competed, and won the contract.

The managed competition saved Tulsa more than $100,000 — but the cost cutting didn’t stop there. The seven maintenance staffers who won the contract identified more than $100,000 in additional cost savings, above and beyond the reductions in their initial bid, and they each were able to take home nearly $4,000 in bonus cash payments.

Our rich nation has the resources to have safe and clean cities and excellent schools, but we have to move forward and let go of old thinking. Cheers to municipal officials who are rising to the challenge.

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