MuniLand

Municipal officials rise to the challenge


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:

Local officials need governance resources

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.

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