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.