What Virginia Needs Is a Good Local-Government Report Card

Speaking of government report cards for states (see previous post), Virginia could use a good system for rating its local governments. As it happens, the Virginia Tea Party Federation is mobilizing to grade Virginia local governments on the basis of 20 to 30 key performance indicators on fiscal health and quality of government services.

The data will be extracted whenever possible from authoritative sources such as local Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs), Mark Dougherty, chairman federation’s Local Government Committee (LGC), said yesterday at the Tuesday Morning Group gathering of conservative and libertarian activists. The LCC hopes to release results in late 2017 after fiscal 201 data becomes available this fall.

The goal is to educate citizens and local government officials and to highlight opportunities to improve governance, Dougherty said. CAFRs run 200 to 300 pages long, and they are difficult for ordinary citizens to plow through. The Tea Party is looking for volunteers willing to compile data for each of Virginia’s 95 counties and 38 cities.

It will be a challenge to create a “fair” rating system, acknowledged Daugherty, who hails from Staunton. Virginia localities vary in size and needs from sparsely populated Highland County, with a $7 million annual budget, to massive Fairfax County with more than a million people and a $7 billion annual budget.

The Tea Party report cards will rate Virginia’s localities on the basis of standard measures and ratios that apply to all, but may adjust for a locality’s unique attributes. Bonus points might be awarded, say, to a county that posts its checkbooks online for public inspection, while penalties might be levied for self-declared sanctuary cities (on the grounds that the presence of illegal aliens runs up local government costs).

As an example of the kind of analysis he hopes citizens will be able to conduct, Daugherty cited Henrico County, where 20 fire-and-rescue stations serve 330,000 residents. Of its 47,000 calls last year, only 825 responded to fires. Clearly, the vast majority were non-fire related. Before Henrico builds another fire station, might it be feasible to have a light fire/rescue vehicle to patrol areas of the county that generate the most calls?

Another example: City of Richmond public schools have between 2,000 and 3,000 students in each of its elementary school grades but only about 1,200 in its high school grades. Are kids dropping out? Are parents keeping their kids in elementary school but then yanking them out of middle school, either to put them in private school or to move out of the county? That would be helpful to know in formulating educational policy. Another question arising from the data is whether the school has adjusted its infrastructure — number and size of public school facilities — to the lower number of high school students.

Daugherty pointed to Goochland County’s “Strategic Plan Report Card,” with five goals and 23 measures, as a potential template for what the Tea Party has in mind. Goochland not only looks at its property tax rate but tracks the ratio of commercial to residential property, new taxable commercial investment, and new taxable investment within its eastern growth management area. The report also measures financial liquidity, the debt-to-expenditure ratio, patrol area covered per deputy, emergency response times, and annual government employee turnover, among other indicators.

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18 responses to “What Virginia Needs Is a Good Local-Government Report Card”

  1. How do we find out what is involved in the volunteer work?

    1. Shoot an email to Mark at writemark[at]comcast.net.

  2. What exactly is being proposed, here? Is this to be an economic health rating, or a political conservatism rating, or a source of raw data suggesting educational policy perhaps but ratable only for transparency? It CANNOT be all three. Let’s applaud the Tea Party for thinking of ways to improve their broader civic reputation, in the manner of the League of Women Voters, but they are a highly suspect group to undertake such a task evenhandedly. Yes, we need a local government report card to catch more impending Petersburgs and Haymarkets before they happen — but, the Tea Party??

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I like the idea of a non-partisan, non-ideological rating system that focuses on metrics… not “policies”… whose impacts are not easily quantifiable.

    For instance… some groups talk about “quality of life” as more of a policy than anything that is quantifiable.. ditto with “sanctuaries” … and other subjective things.

    There’s a little bit of re-creating the wheel here as there are already methods like the Balanced Scorecard.

    But anytime an agenda-based group gets involved in this.. I’m not optimistic. Now.. if the Tea Party folks want to ally with other groups in the county – and agree on a consensus – that’s better.

    Not in favor of “special circumstances” either; that almost always involve some subjective judgement – made by some individuals in the group. It’s problematical.

    Finally – the one thing we do not have in the CAFRs is transportation. How much is collected in taxes – and how much is spent on operations, maintenance and improvements for a given locality. As a result if you asked anyone here in BR how much they pay in transportation taxes – they can’t tell you…

    we also don’t know what local school systems spend money on beyond the state-mandated staffing and service… it’s usually all commingled under generic categories like “instruction” but there is wide variation in what “extras” are bought and paid for with higher taxes which often are half or more of most local budgets.

    the Fire EMS thing BTW is that standard industry practice is that they roll on all auto wrecks – not only potential injuries but hazmat cleanup. Wrecked cars drop all kinds of fluids that can and do run off if not cleaned up.

    but again – we don’t want agenda-based folks “rating” … it’s not a good thing.

    1. Debt ratio maybe; but asking the Tea Party to evaluate the “good” or “bad” fiscal impact of a municipality’s Sanctuary City declaration is — well — problematic.

  4. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan group in name only. They regularly support expansion of government and higher taxes. Mission creep. Most leaders of so-called nonpartisan groups simply don’t have either the intention or ability to keep the group out of substantive political issues.

  5. jalbertbowden Avatar

    Hopefully they’ll follow the guidelines/precedents set by the OKFN’s US Open Data Census. I’ve volunteered on it for a number of years (though last year I did not), and it is very enlightening to see just how bad the commonwealth does in regards to publishing open data.
    Also incredibly exciting to see the number of localities participating increase, as well as their output/commitment, as the census continues.
    Thanks for the response regarding contact information earlier. That is why I came here. Do you mind double checking it though? It looks like it is mark@writemark@comcast.net which I’m assuming is just a typo….

    1. Sorry for the confusion. I can see how what I wrote can be read two different ways: Write to Mark Daugherty at this email address: writemark[at]comast.net. (Substitute @ for [at].)

  6. djrippert Avatar

    DC was rather America’s Worst Run City yesterday by WalletHub. While I’m not totally surprised finding New York City and San Francisco in the bottom 5 gave my some concern. It seems to me that the criteria being used are anti-tax in nature. While that’s all fine and well as a political opinion I don’t see it as an objective measure of quality. What you get for those taxes needs to be weighted too as well as what the residents want.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      A quick look at this so-called review exposes it as click bait bullshit. The number 1 city on the list? Nanpa, ID, population 89,000. But where is Alexandria, VA , population 155,000? Hmmmm …. Nanpa, ID – the list’s #1 best run city is the 361st largest city in America. Provo, UT (#2 on the HallucinationHub list) is America’s 233rd largest city. Kind of makes you wonder who they are skipping over and why.

    2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      A better question is: Who gets what from the taxes that others may pay? For example, the Georgelas development group in Tysons proffered and Fairfax County accepted a promise to extend Greensboro Drive between Spring Hill Road and Tyco Road as part of the grid of streets. The rezoning was conditioned on this and other proffers. To extend that road is a legal obligation that runs with the land.

      Yet, the current NVTA hearings include a proposal for taxpayers to fund that extension. Should taxpayers pay to fund business obligations of others? There are always disconnects between those who want more government services and those who are expected to pay more to fund them.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        Should our local officials be more adamant in pushing the costs of TOD back on those who benefit? Sure. But until Virginia has campaign finance reform (as 46 other states have) the developers, Dominion, Omega Protein, etc are going to get more than their fair share from our political establishment. This begs the question … Do we wait for perfect fairness before proceeding or do we proceed knowing that our governmental officials are corrupt even if they are basically following the hopelessly lax ethics standards they themselves use to write Virginia’s laws? In Northern Virginia – time ran out. We either began the process of using TOD to fix the mess or the mess became unfixable. Waiting for perfect fairness (or even reasonable fairness) would leave our region unsalvageable.

  7. S. E. Warwick Avatar
    S. E. Warwick

    It’s often easier to find out what’s going on in Washington or Kabul than at your local government headquarters. In a previous post, someone snarked that reporters’ time used to be “wasted” covering local government meetings in a manner that was more stenography than reporting. At least some information was transmitted to citizens.

    Local papers today are run by kids who have no interest and little understanding of how government works at all levels. They ignore local budget and land use issues, except maybe to mention tax rates, even though they have a huge impact on the daily life of citizens.

    “Report cards” based on local metrics like EMS response time and employee turnover are a start. Adding links to CAFRs and online check registers so people can draw their own conclusions could dilute perceived bias.

    In Goochland, both the county and schools post checkbooks and credit card statements on line. The schools do a good job of sharing information about how money is spent. This is a far cry from previous administrations that demanded large annual school budget increases arrogantly contending that an Ed.D was required to understand how the funds were used if anyone asked for details.

    The real problem with all of this is that few people pay any attention to the details, no matter how easily accessible the information, until matters deteriorate into crisis, like present day Petersburg.

    1. Sad but true, very few people care how well their city or county is run until there’s a tax increase, crime wave, riot or a fiscal crisis.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    There are two distinct issue with these concepts of “rating”. The first is whether or not the services being provided are being provided in a cost-effective manner – compared to other localities offering the same services – and that’s both sides of the equation – how much it costs and what is provided in quality and quantity. That a bunch of stuff to properly gather data and do an honest and fair rating. And it’s not something most citizen groups can find the commitment to do…

    The second aspect – and this is where agenda-based groups often get involved is whether or not specific services should be offered – almost irrespective of whether they are delivered cost-effectively or not.. it’s the actual provided service they disagree with – and they will then make the case – often not very honestly that the money spent is “wasted” and then they will often anecdotal evidence rather than comparative metrics with other localities offering the same service.

    METRO is a good example. There are folks who just plain disagree with the CONCEPT of METRO .. and really are not the least bit interested in whether or not METRO compares well or not with other systems.

    In my own county – now run by Tea Party folk – they are vehemently opposed to taxpayer-funded trails , even using TA dollars from VDOT to pay for them and even more strongly opposed to the use of eminent domain for trails … It don’t matter how cost effective it is ..or if it adds to the quality of life to citizens or even if it is something that might help attract employers with Millennials workforce ,, they are just flat opposed to the CONCEPT that government should do that with tax dollars. Their argument is that there are other services that government DOES do that are, by funding these other services, deprived of needed funding.

    It’s not an illegitimate point of view but it is a legitimate policy question for voters – in what kinds of services they DO WANT and do want their tax dollars spent on.

    Any would-be rater of a localities needs to fully disclose this aspect of their groups philosophy and that’s where the rub comes from agenda-based groups… who will, for instance – ignore water/sewer as a service as to whether or not it is cost-effective or even for that matter whether it should be provided by the private sector or not in the first place. They’ll more often than not just ignore it as a service to rate.

    Ditto for schools… which consume half or more of most local budgets. They’ll often be in favor of voucher or choice schools but without any equivalent rating system or standards that the public schools have to do.

    Or for that matter – what courses and services the schools themselves should offer or not – that are beyond what the state mandates…

    so basically , trying to get a citizen group to do a fair and objective , non-partisan, non-ideological rating .. is a tough row to hoe… as many get involved to start with on pre-conceived and selected areas they have a particular concern about.

    It’s a shame because there is already a large amount of metric data available.. it just needs to be pulled together for a specific locality. The CAFRs are an excellent place to start to just computer per capita cost for some services and see where a locality ranks compared to others. The bond rating agencies are another. The SOL scores.. and other data which are not fully reported by many schools even though they have to collect that data and give it to the Feds.. 3rd party entities like Niche grab that data and provide it… etc…

  9. As one who spent 16 years of my career comparing local governments in Virginia, I wish them luck. As some have pointed out, a group with an axe to grind will have to work hard to gain creditability for its effort. And, it will not be an easy job, as noted. In the end, it may add another volume to help provide a more robust picture of our local governments.

    I will issue a challenge to the authors. The appendix of such a report must be thick and rich with information. The source of all original data must be provided down to the exact table. All assumptions should be carefully and clearly provided. The same with all instances where data is normalized. When data is missing, the way that such is accounted for in the report must be explained [e.g., Richmond’s absent CAFR for a number of years]. Anyone seeking to replicate any of the tables or conclusions in the report must be able to do so using the appendix. Otherwise, the report is just another black box.

    Some words of caution for the authors. Do not necessarily take data from other sources at face value. I can cite several instances over many years where there were mistakes in the CAFRs that skewed data. The comparative report published by he Auditor of Public Accounts use to not question the numbers they were by localities; perhaps they might now. Also, any researcher must look behind the numbers they use from other sources and understand the methodology used to derive the data. Otherwise, they may be compounding initial errors in data collection. Do not accept simple conclusions. There may be reasons why Henrico fire has such high calls for service. Understand that there are unique aspects to local government structures, especially in schools. For example, there are two town school divisions in our state, so that will affect data on their parent county. There are some totally or partially consolidated city-county school divisions. Only two counties in the state maintain their own roads, so any report card on transportation will be difficult.

    Stick to objective measures and eschew the subjective as much as possible. If use subjective measures, give the rationale. Acknowledge that some of the data used may be flawed [e.g., the only authoritative population numbers are from the decennial census, everything else is an estimate, but is the only thing available]. Do not selectively pick data and use it to support preconceived ideas.

    In closing, I look forward to seeing such a report card, especially the appendix.


  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m of a similar mind… especially with regard to data and appendix…

    totally in favor of more and better locality transparency… as a basic ethic.. but also similar levels of transparency for any/all data and sources that groups would use to assess and rate…

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    Local Transportation taxes can be approximated by looking at the state level revenues… found here :
    then calculated the per capita amount then multiplying by your own locality population.

    So Virginia takes in about 3.4 billion dollars per year in the combination of taxes it levies for transportation – primarily the fuel tax, the general sales tax and sales tax on new cars.

    if you divide 3.4 billion by 8.4 million population of Va – you get about $400 per capita. Then don’t forget the Federal tax which according to the same chart delivers about another billion or about $120 per capita.

    so Virginians pay roughly about $500 annually for transportation…and say for a county of about 100K population – that translates into about 50 million.

    Half of that will go for operation and maintenance… give or take.. so that leaves about 25 million a year for transportation improvements.

    For a place the size of Fairfax.. that would be 250 million… For a county of 25,000 … maybe 6 million for improvements.

    these are back-of-the-envelope… as the reality is that VDOT does not allocate this way… they have a much more complex algorithm…some say inscrutable (on purpose) , others convinced their locality is unfairly treated… There is a separate and different process for Henrico and Arlington… and Cities .. possibly towns….

    but perhaps a salient point is that if , on average, taxes generate about $500 per citizen… should any county expect more than that for OM and improvements – over the longer run?

    Since Education, Transportation and Public Safety eat up around 90% of locality revenues…those are 3 that any would-be citizen group could legitimately spend time and effort getting the numbers..

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