Compare Localities to Improve Performance

Roy Fauber. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

I like the way Roy Fauber thinks. One doesn’t have to agree with the conclusions of the retired Federal Research Bank of Richmond executive to appreciate how he goes about dissecting issues in a recent op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The cities of Richmond and Norfolk are close peers, he observes. They are similar in the sizes of their population (Norfolk 243,000 and Richmond 217,000), the percentage of the school-age population (11% and 12%), and poverty rates ( 22% and 25%). One might add that both cities are similar in that they are 200+ years old, can boast large downtown districts, and suffer from decaying decayed inner city neighborhoods and aging infrastructures.

Despite the similar nature of their challenges, Fauber notes, Richmond’s real estate taxes are 19.6% higher than Norfolk’s on a per-capita basis. General taxes are 26% higher per capita. He asks: “What accounts for this major disparity? … Do Richmond citizens get more for their money?”

Darn good question. Politicians are masters of deflection and excuse making. Citizens can cut through the rhetorical fog by posing questions like Fauber does.

Writes Fauber:

Education is the largest single expense for both cities. Claims of underspending on education are frequently reported in the Richmond news. On a per pupil basis, Norfolk spends $11,999 per student; Richmond spends $14,619 — 22% more. It doesn’t seem that inadequate funding should be a problem in Richmond.

Do Richmond schools perform better? Norfolk has 43 schools — 26 fully accredited and 17 with conditions. Richmond also has 43 schools — 18 fully accredited and 25 accredited with conditions. Norfolk schools apparently do a better job meeting requirements than Richmond.

Have consolidations led to lower costs per student at the same time as producing more fully accredited schools? Norfolk has 22% more students, yet the same number of schools. Why is that? Richmond has 66% disadvantaged students versus 61% in Norfolk. How much does that affect costs? Where does the extra money go in Richmond?

By contrast, Fauber observes, Richmond spends only 66% as much per capita on public works as Norfolk. “Is Richmond just super-efficient?” Or, as might be indicated by chronic public complaints about potholes, burned-out street lights and garbage collection, “Is our infrastructure being neglected?”

Those are examples of the kind of questions citizens need to ask of their elected officials. The numbers are readily available. Localities produce Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports, and the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts compiles data that makes it easy to compare the departmental spending of one locality to another. Fauber writes:

Shouldn’t someone be held accountable for unearthing the questions, answering them and developingt improvement plans where appropriate? If Norfolk does something better than Richmond, find out how. Internal reviews or consultants won’t provide all the answers. Maybe Norfolk and Richmond employee teams could become partners in achieving excellence for their citizens by working together, sharing ideas and insights.

Fauber’s logic applies not only to Richmond, Norfolk and Virginia’s older cities. It applies to fast-growth suburban counties, declining rural counties, and other local-government peer groups. Virginians can learn much about the strengths and weaknesses of their localities through peer-to-peer comparisons, and they can apply pressure on their elected officials accordingly.

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8 responses to “Compare Localities to Improve Performance

  1. I can’t speak to Norfolk, but hear Richmond’s education costs are partly due to old buildings. I am reasonably confident that newer, larger, more compact, and more energy efficient schools would lower operating costs. They would also allow for fewer principals, a single cleaning crew, etc. Given Richmond’s land shortage, and the massive capital needed for new buildings, I propose Richmond explore office-building conversion (as an option, not a prescription). This worked for Bailey’s Crossroads:

    Putting school budgets aside, I will advocate for communities for a moment. Richmond should not forget the backlash following the Bon Secours’ acquisition of the Westhampton school. Closing schools and selling property assets is a contentious subject and residents have valid concerns (like property values, community ties, safety, parking, preserving historic architecture, avoiding corporate “sweet-heart” deals, losing city assets, etc.) Right or wrong, that particular decision went over terribly.

    • The idea of adaptive reuse of an old commercial building is an interesting idea. Richmond Public Schools seem to have a strong preference, though, for building brand new schools from scratch.

    • Of course in any comparison there will be differences. As always it is necessary to drill down and discover how much (at least to order of magnitude) of the overall contrast can be attributed to each difference. What’s tiresome and unproductive is to discredit the entire comparison by saying “Well, there’s this difference, and this difference . . .” without providing any sense of how much each of those differences, specifically older school buildings in this case, might make. I for one attended classes in the old John Marshall High School building downtown, one that’s been erased — it seemed pretty solid at the time, it would probably be a maintenance nightmare today, but how much of a nightmare?

      About re-use of commercial buildings, urban areas like Brooklyn have certainly had success with doing so. Where land is expensive and the former commercial/industrial structure is cheap (and comes with enough of a parking lot to make into a playground) and the community is well organized to oppose any demolition of old structures — why not? Given all the adaptive re-use of old commercial structures there for other purposes, why not for schools? That said, I suppose Richmond real estate values are proportionately lower; but the real reason most school boards want to build anew, empire-building, is a bureaucratic itch we should not let the school system scratch without a strong challenge. As Jim says, their preference is to start from scratch and that is not the way to safeguard the urban environment that is Richmond’s greatest asset.

    • Certainly, older buildings without up-to-date energy, electrical, plumbing, security systems will be more inefficient to operate and increase costs. However, the big expense for schools, be they public or private, is personnel. And, at least in the public sector, protection of jobs is very important to school board members, many of whom get campaign contributions from teachers unions. It’s been my experience that schools will twist themselves into knots to avoid layoffs. Consolidating schools may well occur but bet your bottom dollar that from the principals on down, jobs will be found.

      A state audit of Fairfax County Public Schools concluded the division had excess assistant principals. They are still there.

  2. Have always been a fan of the LAW that requires all localities to generate standardized financial reports that can be compared.

    But local govt is people and some are careful and frugal and others not – and some places may have infrastructure and local conditions that are more costly. We also have credit agencies providing their assessments of the financials but in the end, it is about elections of people – some who may “sound” like they are good but in reality just like some smooth talking folks who are at the same time grossly irresponsible – so can be local government.

    And to a certain extent – if a locality has a AAA rating -but spends more on – say schools – or attracts jobs – but taxes are high – what does THAT mean?

  3. Well, they DO care if the manage their debt responsibly, not only if they can repay it but how much they carry as a percent of their revenues.

    However, I always thought these Va-required comparative local reports could be interesting comparisons for capital debt and operational costs – especially for schools and public safety.

  4. As a resident of Henrico County, it may not be fair for me to comment on how Richmond works. That being said, for years it has amazed me how it seems that the Richmond city government can’t do even the basic things that governments are supposed to do. For example, look at how long it has taken to get the new Farmers’ Market renovated. Renovations began in 2017 and in the spring of 2019, it still was not complete; long-time vendors have been displaced and neighboring businesses are frustrated and mad. I was certain that the Redskins’ training center would not be completed on time, but the city proved me wrong on that one. But there are numerous stories of the bureaucracy as being dysfunctional.

    Part of the reason for the difference between Norfolk and Richmond may be the government structure. Norfolk has a council-manager form of government. The city council appoints the city manager; the mayor is a member of the council and, nominally, a part-time mayor. The council and the administration work closely together. Richmond, on the other hand, has a strong mayor form. The mayor is elected, and is not a member of the council, and is responsible for the administration of the city. As such, the mayor and council are often at odds.

    Finally, Norfolk has had a history of good, professional city managers. After Robert Bobb, the authority of city managers in Richmond has been overshadowed by mayors who are more politicians than managers. And there seems to be a constant shuffling in top administrative posts, particularly when new mayors come in, ensuring little continuity and consistency. The shuffling was especially evident during the Dwight Jones years. I lost count of the number of “refugees” from Richmond city government who came to work for the state.

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