Consulting with Citizens

Consultation is a different beast altogether than information sharing.  Whereas information sharing is a one way relationship, consultation creates a two way relationship based on citizen feedback.  It relies on a fundamental assumption by local leaders that citizen feedback is beneficial to the budget process and decision making (often with regard to expenditures or even tax rate setting).  This method provides for and encourages citizen input while still allowing local leaders to define the agenda.  The key is that practitioners and elected officials solicit input a set of issues and questions that they create and control. 

The fact that government officials still retain control over the agenda is the primary difference between consultation and the final type of engagement, active participation.  Within consultation officials have identified key areas they would like feedback on and it will still involve information sharing in almost all cases.  Officials will set the stage, define the question and the background needed to understand the issue, and then solicit feedback on a (typically) limited element of the problem.

A typical example of consultation is providing citizens with venues (such as public hearings and town hall meetings) where information is shared and citizens are given opportunities to give leaders their opinions and suggestions.  An additional benefit, beyond information sharing, is that this method requires limited time and money on the part of the local government.  Aspects of this form, like town halls and hearings, align with practitioners and elected officials, but generally this is closer to the practitioner view of citizen engagement where they are looking to inform and create community liaisons.   Once again, like information sharing, a form of consultation is required by state law.  There must be a budget hearing where the proposed budget is presented and citizens have the opportunity to comment on it.  While the scope of these budget hearings is often the entire budget, there are often specific issues that citizens will be more interested in and that officials will be more interested in explaining, discussing, and receiving feedback on.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from our neighbors to the north.  Fairfax County, Virginia asked its citizens to create a better budget a few years ago.  Citizens were able to change key spending areas (with an increase or decrease) and then were asked to balance it either through cuts (because let’s be honest, most people have some key areas they think deserve more money) or tax increases.  It was a great tool for information sharing and for consultation.  Why consultation?  Because if citizen’s chose to share their choices with the county, then county officials had a lot of information about citizen priorities and preferences!

While this process can be very informational for local leaders, they should be aware that they will likely still hear from a segment of the population that may not be representative of the population as a whole.  Therefore leaders need to balance what they hear with what they believe are the needs of the greater population.  Establishing this balance is no easy task and requires dedication by elected officials and practitioners. This is one reason I advocated for using a multitude of methods to reach and engage with citizens in an earlier blog.  If you are relying heavily on hearings and those occur on weeknights people who work evening shifts or have lower access to transportation may not be able to go.  Similarly, parents of young children may also find it difficult to attend evening meetings.  This is one reason for the growing use of electronic engagement which overcomes many of these hurdles since computers and smart phones are becoming more universal, but there are still issues of language barriers, access, to name a few.  And once again this is implying that there is equal interest across groups in engaging, which is unlikely in most communities.  So it is not just about providing access, but being mindful of the voices you are hearing and those you are not.  Once again, this could be with regard to income, race, gender, language, age, political leanings, etc.  It is a complicated puzzle, but an important one to be mindful of.

Another caution with regard to consultation is it is ill-advised to solicit input from citizens if there is no really intention to use it.  It makes the process more frustrating for citizens and it may even cause them to lose faith in their government.  Beyond that it is a waste of both government and citizen resources.

Budgeting in Local Government: Registration now open

Budgeting in Local Government
October 31st – November 3rd, 2017, School of Government

This four-day course covers the legal and management framework of budget preparation and enactment in North Carolina local government.  Participants will discuss the numerous processes and techniques used to produce an annual operating budget and capital budget.

Program Topics:

  • Local Government Fiscal and Control Act (Only for participants who have not attended Introduction to Local  Government Finance)
  • Tax Efficiency & Equity
  • Performance Management
  • Economic Development
  • Revenue Forecasting
  • Resource Allocation
  • Budgeting for Schools and Human Services
  • Budgeting for Enterprises
  • Fund Balance
  • Citizen Engagement
  • Capital Improvement Program
  • Financial Condition Analysis
  • Budget Presentation
  • Revenue-Neutral Property Tax Rate
  • Budget Award & Course Evaluation

Who Should Attend: This course is intended for city and county managers, budget and finance officers, budget and financial analysts, and other officials who have significant responsibilities for annual budget preparation and enactment.

 Cost:  $500

 Registration:  Register online at http://www.sog.unc.edu/courses/budgeting-local-government for this course.

Faculty Coordinator: Whitney Afonso, Assistant Professor of Public Administration and Government.

For more information: Contact Jo Ann Brewer, program manager, at 919.966-4197 or brewer@sog.unc.edu.

Engaging our future: A guide to going into the classroom

In the last three blogs we have been talking about citizen engagement (see here, here, and here).  One of the areas that is most frustrating for governments is often their attempts to engage citizens are not particularly successful.  Citizens may not have time or easy access to the events and resources, but there are ways around that.  What happens when it is simply that citizens DO NOT WANT to engage?  That is often the reality.  Governments spend precious time and resources developing great opportunities but no one (or few) takes advantage of them.  This is an aspect of citizen engagement I have been personally interested in and one that I believe we can address by starting ‘em young.

Alright, maybe not that young!  That being said, we have a captive audience with school-aged children that I think we could take better advantage of.  Maybe it is because I grew up in the generation of D.A.R.E. classes or because I volunteered for Junior Achievement in grad school, but I believe in the power of reaching out to kids to teach them about important civic principals like budgeting and government.

That being said, I had never taught kids before (other than with Junior Achievement and a 30 minute lesson on taxes I taught to my son’s 2nd grade class in May—ask me about our discussion of backpacks full of garbage next time you see me) and felt uncomfortable making this recommendation without having actually seen how it would work to talk to school age kids about government and budgets.  So, I went out and took two weeks and taught kids about government and budgets.  I had rising 6th and 7th graders for a week and rising 4th and 5th graders for a week.  I had them for almost 8 hours a day for a full week.  Let me just say, by then end I was hoarse and worn out!  It was great though and I learned a lot about working with those age groups and am going to share some of those lessons here.  My hope is that it will inspire some of you to consider going into local schools and take advantage of them being required to show up and listen.  We can engage and help encourage them to become engaged citizens.

I am also working on preparing some basic materials that I will share for you to build off.  You will of course want to customize them for your community, but it will at least be a starting point and I am HAPPY to help you figure out what is best!  Please do let me know if this is something you are interested in.

So, some lessons.  First and foremost, it was a blast.  Both age groups were made up of wonderful and gifted kids.  They were enthusiastic about the material and eager to engage with it.  Of course, they (or their parents) had signed up for a week on it, but this was true when I went into my son’s classroom too.  This excitement sometimes manifested itself into conversations with the children sitting next to them, interruptions, and stories/thoughts only marginally related.  Not too surprising.

That leads me to my second lesson, keep “lecturing” to a minimum.  There are A TON of activities that you can do with them depending on how much time you have with them.  One activity that I brought was the School of Government’s Budgetopolis game.  It was a huge hit.  I let each group name their city and had a “Twitter feed” on a whiteboard calling them out.  They really loved that and it helped them understand that some choices are harder to stomach than others are.  One of the other activities that we did is that I asked them all to create a personal budget.  I gave them instructions about what their budget was and what their parents would continue to pay for.  Some chose to invest it all in stocks and others all in Pokemon cards and candy.  What it did though was show them the importance of budget constraints, prioritizing spending, and recurring versus one-time costs.  It also led to a great conversation about shocks, what happens when an opportunity presents itself—where do you get your money?  Did you cut something?  The students were great and when I found ways to let them experience the lessons I could see the wheels turn and them start to really make the connections.

The third lesson is you need to understand your audience.  You need to think about the age group and their background.  What concerns will they have?  What type of government services will they likely know about and use?  Use their knowledge to your advantage.  I used the example of public transportation for the city.  About half of my students in my middle school group actively used the bus.  That made the conversation much more robust and interesting.  It also gave a face to those who would potentially be paying if the city chose to increase the fees for the students who did not ride the bus.  It benefited all of them.

In a very related lesson, lesson four, if you give them too much freedom you have no idea what you will get.  I began the week with introductions and then with an activity designed to help me introduce the wide range of what government does.  I asked them to work in pairs and come up with something that is currently hard or impossible to do and that they would like to do.  Then we would come back together and talk about if government would have a role in that.  I was imagining they would come up with something like jet packs.  We could talk about investing in research, writing laws about their use, requiring people to get jet pack licenses or permits, safety regulations, etc.  What I got, especially from the middle schoolers, was what they worried about in our modern political era.  They shared their fears and concerns about government and politics and laws.  Honestly it was poignant stuff and I took it seriously, it was also outside the scope of what I had come there to talk to them about.  I learned that that was too broad of a question/prompt.  I needed to tighten it up if I used it again in the future.  These kids are sharp and they have their own agenda.

My fifth lesson is do not hold back.  Do not shy away from teaching them difficult material.  Make sure they understand that we are going to be respectful of each other and our opinions, but they can handle real conversations about spending and tax policy.  They understood the concepts of progressive, proportional, and regressive taxation.  They understood the notion that if we spend money on streets that means we are choosing to not spend that money elsewhere, and that there are restrictions about what we can do and what we have to do.

The sixth and final lesson is to let them have their moments to be silly.  In my late elementary school students especially, they needed to vent their goofiness.  Do not fight it (fully) and let them explore it within reason.  For example, I had one who wanted to write the mayor and suggest that the city build a statue of an athlete he admired.  This suggestion was picked up by another who student who thought it should instead be Elmo and it should be made of gold.  Okay, so let’s discuss why the city may or may not be willing to do that.  What would that cost?  Is gold durable?  Would people try and steal it?  What does Elmo mean to your community?  Could that money be better used elsewhere?  It was only a five minute, at most, side conversation but it was great because the students actually arrived at those questions without me largely.  They had the tools to understand why that was a bad idea without me pushing them much.  And they got some of their silly energy out.

Tip: Videos help calm them back down—especially the younger kids.  We ended the class with how can they get involved and we talked about citizen engagement.  They knew that we were going to wrap up by writing letters to their mayor (or in some cases based on issues the President) and they were really excited to share their ideas.  However, I wanted to talk about more than just letter writing.  So we took a short video break to see the PBS “Crash Course” video on Public Opinion.

In conclusion, it was great and I think we need to be doing more of it.  Work with your schools and teachers to find opportunities to get into the classroom and teach them about government and budgeting.  I will be preparing some starter kits for lessons if people would like them. They will need to be customized for each community, but I am also happy to talk with people who would like to do this sort of work.  Please do not hesitate to reach out!

Municipalities and the Great Recession

Much has been written about the impact of the Great Recession on state governments and larger cities, but we have yet to see deep analysis on how smaller municipalities weathered the recession. To get the ball rolling my students and I have analyzed the impact of the recession on smaller cities in Georgia and Florida and are currently adding an additional eleven states to the analysis. To begin we selected two states that have somewhat different revenue structures:

Continue reading

State Collection of County Financial Data Sources

By Zach Mohr and Madison Esterle

One of the fundamental problems for local government public budget and finance research in the United States is the availability of audited financial data in a format that is easy to collect and analyze. This is a problem for both researchers that are trying to assemble large data sets and for practitioners that live in states that do not have centralized collection of this data. It is also a problem for cross state data collection, which is quite common for local jurisdictions that live on the borders of states. Undoubtedly, there is much duplication of effort and a great need for local government financial information that is comparable for research and practice.

This blog post presents some basic information that we have collected on the availability of county financial data sources that are collected by states (see table 1 at the end of the blog). This information is provided to supplement other efforts and to make practitioners aware of other data sources outside of their state. It answers a few basic questions. Which states require counties to produce GAAP financial statements? Which states provide centralized collection of county financial data? And what format is the financial data collected by states reported in? We map the answers to these questions and provide some contextual description of the data, which were greatly facilitated by the excellent maps provided by NACO. We are interested in posting this data to have practitioners and others researchers look at the data, use it, and tell us where we might find other such data.

Which states require counties to produce GAAP financial statements?

GAAP financial statements are often required to produce audited financial data that is sufficiently comparable for research purposes. Interestingly, most states (29) currently do not require counties to produce GAAP based financial reports.  However, a significant number (17) do not have consistent reporting requirements or reporting requirements that differ from GAAP.

Three states are listed as N/A. This is because this information was substantially based on the NACO financial reporting maps. Also, our map differs from NACO in that we do not recognize Alaska as having consistent financial reporting requirements.

Which states provide centralized collection of county financial data?

For research purposes, we are often interested in states that collect local government financial data as it greatly facilitates the research process. It also greatly facilitates financial transparency as citizens, elected and appointed officials, and other interested parties can compare the spending and financing activities of governments as North Carolina does with its fiscal benchmarking and data collection tools.

Centralized collection happens in seventeen states and of these states (13) collect data on greater than 90% of the counties. Most of these states do not collect county information for the unique counties that have been merged with cities i.e. Denver or San Francisco or entities that are somewhat unique like the boroughs of New York City that function somewhat like counties but are also part of the city. For these purposes, in the spreadsheet at the end of this article, we have broken out the states that collect greater than 90% of their counties and those states that have a centralized collection presence on the web but collect less than 90% of their counties.

What format is the financial data collected by states reported in?

Finally, the format of the centralized financial data is important because it provides easier access to the data and should also provide better transparency and context for the financial comparability of the counties. We find that only five states have centralized collection that allows for easy exporting of the financial data to Excel or csv file formats and of these five only three have a requirement that the counties report GAAP financial statements. Most of the seventeen states provide links to pdfs (12 states).  We would like to encourage state and local governments to provide their financial information in formats that assist in data collection and analysis as this can greatly increase financial transparency of local governments.

Conclusion

Researchers and practitioners have great need of financial data. Audited GAAP financial data is the gold standard for comparability purposes.  Centralized collection of local government financial statements that are collected in ways that allow analysis like exportable .csv files are also excellent ways to facilitate transparency and analysis.

One of our main reasons for doing this blog post is to increase awareness of county financial data sources. If you know of other sources (like state associations of counties that have historical financial data that are readily and/or freely available), we would like to know about it. If these sources are available on the web, we will update this file in a future blog post. Also, please let us know if we have misclassified a state that you are aware. States can change their reporting requirements and are increasingly trying to provide greater access to local government financial data. The local government budget and finance community of researchers and practitioners can be made significantly stronger by knowledge of comparable financial data sources.

 

 

 

Table 1: County Financial Reporting by States
Centralized Collection Collection Format
State GAAP >90% <90% PDF CSV Website
AL 0 0 0 0 0
AK 0 0 0 0 0
AZ 1 1 0 1 0 https://www.azauditor.gov/reports-publications/counties
AR 0 0 0 0 0
CA 1 1 0 0 1 https://bythenumbers.sco.ca.gov/Counties-Get-Started/All-County-Data/npha-h8hu
CO 1 1 0 1 0 https://dola.colorado.gov/lgis/counties.jsf
CT n/a 0 0 0 0
DE 0 0 0 0 0
FL 1 1 0 1 0 https://flauditor.gov/pages/counties_efile.htm
GA 1 1 0 1 0 https://ted.cviog.uga.edu/financial-documents/financial-reports
HI 1 0 0 0 0
ID 1 0 0 0 0
IL 0 0 0 0 0
IN 0 0 0 0 0
IA 1 1 0 1 0 https://www.iowaonline.state.ia.us/localbudgets/default.aspx?cmd=gotopublicsite
KS 0 0 0 0 0
KY 0 0 0 0 0
LA 1 0 0 0 0
ME 1 0 0 0 0
MD 1 0 0 0 0
MA n/a 0 0 0 0
MI 1 0 1 0 1 https://f65.mitreasury.msu.edu/Reports/DataSummaryReport.aspx
MN 1 0 0 0 0
MS 1 0 1 1 0 http://www.osa.state.ms.us/reports/local/
MO 0 0 0 0 0
MT 1 0 0 0 0
NE 0 1 0 1 0 http://www.nebraska.gov/auditor/reports/index.cgi?audit=1
NV 1 0 0 0 0
NH 1 0 0 0 0
NJ 0 0 0 0 0
NM 1 0 0 0 0
NY 0 1 0 0 1 http://wwe2.osc.state.ny.us/transparency/LocalGov/LocalGovIntro.cfm
NC 1 1 0 0 1 https://www.nctreasurer.com/slg/lfm/financial-analysis/Pages/Analysis-by-Population.aspx
ND 1 0 0 0 0
OH 1 1 0 1 0 https://ohioauditor.gov/auditsearch/Search.aspx
OK 0 0 0 0 0
OR 1 1 0 1 0 http://sos.oregon.gov/audits/Pages/muniaudits.aspx
PA 1 1 0 1 0 http://munstats.pa.gov/Reports/ReportInformation2.aspx?report=cAfrForm
RI n/a 0 0 0 0
SC 0 0 1 1 0 http://www.sccounties.org/budgets-and-cafrs
SD 0 0 0 0 0
TN 1 0 1 1 0 http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/la/CountySelect.asp
TX 1 0 0 0 0
UT 1 0 0 0 0
VT 0 0 0 0 0
VA 1 0 0 0 0
WA 0 1 0 0 1 http://portal.sao.wa.gov/LGCS/Reports/ReportMain.aspx
WV 1 0 0 0 0
WI 1 0 0 0 0
WY 1 0 0 0 0
Total 30 13 4 12 5

 

*Note this research is funded by the MIT Election Data and Science Lab and its funder, the Madison Initiative of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.  We also would like to thank Robert Austin for his help in creating the maps.

 

 

The classics: Traditional modes of information sharing

 

Consider these tactics and efforts the Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, and Alice in Wonderland of sharing budget information.  Except no one makes you read (or watch) these in high school.

Earlier this week I covered an overview of the first phase of citizen engagement.  For my examples of information sharing I tried to highlight some ways that local governments are doing this that you may not have seen before.  However, I wanted to make sure to also cover the classics, for those who are interested.  Consider this a bonus post!

There are three common methods of information sharing employed by many local governments.  The first is simply making budget information available online, at your government offices, or at places like local public libraries.  This is a basic and, in North Carolina, a mandated way to share information and ensure basic transparency.  It also requires a commitment of very limited time and resources, which makes it attractive to many local governments.  The main shortcoming of this method is that the information will likely be too complicated and overwhelming for your average citizen to gain a great deal from it.  For example, citizens may not understand their local government’s revenue streams, debt constraints, levels of mandatory spending, specific program functions, or budget terminology.  Additionally, this approach only reaches citizens are proactive in attaining that information.

Another often used method is the creation and dissemination of budget factsheets.  A major advantage to factsheets is that they allow local governments to communicate complicated budget information in an easy to understand manner.  The primary disadvantage is that creating a brief factsheet from a lengthy budget requires significant practitioner time and it is difficult to synthesize all the necessary information and context. Practitioners tend to find it difficult, if not impossible, to provide a full picture of the budget in a single factsheet causing fears that this method may actually misinform or mislead citizens.  Additionally, it can difficult to create a factsheet that is purely neutral and does not advance arguments by highlighting certain areas of spending or choosing not to.  Practitioners should be aware of factsheet elements that may make an argument, however subtle. The use of terms such as “myth”, “truth”, and “reality” are examples of elements that subtly imply a position or advocacy.  Local governments that use budget factsheets should take the necessary due diligence to ensuring that they are producing neutral and informational factsheets.

 

Informational videos are emerging as another standard means for information sharing.  In today’s digital age, conveying budget information in a video is an easy and appealing approach.  Creating informational videos is a time and cost effective process producing a highly informational product.  Many municipal governments in North Carolina have public access channels dedicated to government programming.  These channels would be a good avenue for to educate the public about budget information.  Public access television still struggles with the constraint that only proactive citizens watch these channels.  This requires local practitioners to be creative in developing multiple mediums in which to disseminate these videos.  Local governments with tech savvy and creative practitioners (or college interns) may be successful in creating engaging videos and using different social mediums (consider Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter among others) to reach a broader audience.  When creating video content, make sure that the public response will be positive and not feeling that the government wasted resources on a overly complicated video.  Many local governments have been criticized by citizens for creating over ambitious videos that take resources away from other government services.

The same basic set of advantages and concerns discussed in the previous blog are here too.  So be thoughtful about when and how to use these and what other resources can be made available to reach more citizens.  Next month I will be blogging about how to reach a captive audience and share information with them!

The first step in citizen engagement: Information Sharing

The first step, in my opinion, in productive citizen engagement is providing information and helping educate citizens about government and budgeting.  This is because government is just a black box to most people.  They sort of understand some of the most basic functions of government, but may not have any idea of which level of government does it.  Who pays for libraries? Roads? Do I have police and a sheriff?  What about fire service?  What does the state even do?  These are not unrealistic questions.

Therefore, it should not be surprising the primary way the local governments engage with citizens is to push information out to them.  This phase of engagement can be characterized as a one way relationship between government and citizens where government is delivering information.

Have you heard about transparency, open government, or open data?  Of course you have.  These efforts are all a part of this initial phase.  They involve governments (local and other) making documents and information public and accessible to citizens.  The goal is that citizens will learn about government and hold government accountable.  So in the past that may have meant that the budget was available at the local library, now it is available online and searchable!  For example, want to see know how much Charlotte’s Aviation department spent on postage?  Sure!  They were appropriated $40,000 in FY2016.  Of course, there is no context for that and it may seem outrageous to many.  That is a problem with just posting everything online.  A lot of people do not know what they are looking for or how to interpret what they are seeing.  I always think about this as one of those scenes in a legal drama where the defense requests a file and what they get is a room full of file boxes and papers to sort through.

Is that really transparency and engagement?  I think it can be done better, but making it all public is important and valuable, I just think we can do better.  Websites make a lot of this information push a lot easier.  While that is great and I applaud the efforts, government needs to be mindful of how easy it is to navigate.  There is evidence that having little videos that explain some of the terminology and how to navigate and find what you are looking for helps citizens a lot.  This may be something you want to consider.  You can also be innovative about how you present data in the first place.  A great example of this is what Asheville is doing.  They had originally had something similar that was done through a Code for Asheville group, but now they are hosting something pretty similar on their own website.

What I like about it is that it presents the different areas of expenditures and visually presents them based on their size.  This is more effective in helping people understand the scope of expenditures and the differences in the level of program spending.  It also allows the user to click on the box and dive deeper into the spending in that area.  For example, above is a visualization two clicks in from the full budget.  I first clicked enterprise and then water.  This is a simple way to present some of this information in a digestible way.  One thing that may have made it even better would be having definitions involved for those residents that do not know what enterprises are, for example.  You could also link to the website of these departments or that section of the budget.

I will admit I like their old one slightly more, see a screen shot of it here:

That is because I prefer being able to quickly see how it has changed over time and by how much.  However, both are good and better than what you find in most jurisdictions.

Another example of information sharing is the taxpayer receipt.  The basic idea here is that you get a receipt for everything else you spend your money on; why not get one for your taxes.  While I am a big believer in not treating citizens like customers, I think that this is an effective tool for making the numbers meaningful.  In fact, I wrote a bulletin on the taxpayer receipt that lays out some of the arguments for it and how you could create one yourself.  I show you how to create one that is static; i.e., one that you could mail to people or leave in the library or town hall.  There are also dynamic ones where you can input your actual tax burdens and see what your numbers look like.  Rather than having to create one yourself there are companies that will do it for you like Balancing Act (and yes that is my paper they link to).

Charlotte has taken them on and created their own tool, though they have used it as a simulation to balance the budget.  Depending on how they choose to use that information Charlotte’s tool may be closer to the second phase of engagement: consultation.  Which we will get to in a future blog!

Of course, there are more traditional ways of reaching out to citizens to provide information such as public access channel videos (or online videos) and budget fact sheets.  Tune in next time for a quick overview of those more traditional ways of sharing budget information (and you do not even have to wait a full month—consider it a bonus!).

Final thoughts: Benefits of these information sharing tools is that they are pretty efficient.  Governments can reach a lot of people and make a lot of information available.  Those strategies are also relatively low cost and do not require too much effort or burden on the budget office or IT.  You could just get an amazing intern to work on some of it, may I recommend a Carolina MPA student?  Some problems with these strategies is that they rely on citizens actively seeking out information.  You will likely not reach passive citizens, and they may represent the vast majority of citizens.

 

Running a Successful PUV Auditing Program

“Don’t mess with the farmers!” I’ve heard these words of wisdom a few times in my career, always from well-meaning individuals who had come out on the wrong side of a PUV auditing program. They had come to the conclusion that it wasn’t politically feasible to conduct stringent audits of their farms in the present use program, and that the county was better off letting everyone but the most egregious non-qualifiers go through.

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Transparency with your Business Personal Property Audit Program

Possibly the most well-known method of delivering the mission of the School of Government is through teaching. But to me personally, another very important delivery method is through advising. Last year, 45 faculty and other professionals at the School of Government reported 13,105 advising events. I hope my individual advising can become an increasingly valuable resource for you. I believe I can be more valuable to everyone when you individually ask me to be involved. A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to provide advice on a presentation. The Randolph County commissioners requested the assessor’s office to do something that makes government better in my opinion. The request was to be more transparent and informative for their taxpayers, but more specifically regarding the county’s business personal property (BPP) tax audit program. The assessor’s office was asked to put together a presentation on their program and they asked for my ideas. I want to share some of those ideas so you will hopefully share your thoughts in the comments section and we can grow this resource for everyone’s use. Maybe this post can be a tool for collaboration. Continue reading

Autonomous Vehicles are coming, is your city ready?

Do you want your bonds to kill your city’s bond ratings?

Do you want your bonds to go into default?

Do you want to be responsible for a backlash against the mayor/council for not planning for a future you should have known was coming?

Do you want your city to become even more clogged with traffic, but this time the cars are empty and slowing everyone down?

Ignoring autonomous vehicles (AVs) may be possible today, but just know, they are coming soon–and by soon I mean this year (2017). While AVs may not yet be mainstream transportation today, do not count on it just being something your grandkids use. Cities have to start planning now, or their leaders will be saying YES (begrudgingly) to those questions above. A new report out from the folks at the Sustainable Cities Initiative at the University of Oregon is looking to help you deal with these questions. You can read our report here.

AVs will be on the roads in substantial numbers in the next 10 years, and taking on a substantial share of transportation needs in 20 (or less). Uber wasn’t a ‘thing’ that we did until March 2009—and not a lot of us were using it then. Today people are selling off one or more of their cars because they just use Uber/Lyft instead. And while we like the idea of having the freedom to go whenever, wherever we want in our cars, they are not used all that often—sitting idle 95, yet costing us ten percent of our budgets.

E-commerce is here and growing larger each year. When Amazon started in the 1990s no one could have imagined that this online bookstore would transform into one of the world’s largest companies. Brick and mortar stores nationwide are closing, transforming our Main Streets and shopping malls. In some cities, you can make your order and receive the goods the same day—this trend will certainly extend to more and more people globally as the reach of e-commerce extends further and further into our shopping habits.

The combination of e-commerce and AVs will (and may already be) reshape our cities.  Regardless of your desire to use an AV or not or shop on Amazon, they transformations will have an effect on our cities. Many cities have huge investments in on-street parking and parking garages to allow us to park near where we are going. Yet if an AV is driving us and dropping us off at our destination, cities won’t get to collect that revenue anymore and have a hard time paying off those revenue bonds. Think this is a problem for the future? Think again! Cities are already feeling the heat because so many people are using shared vehicle services like Lyft. Airports have seen substantial drop offs in parking revenue, taxi revenues, and rental car revenues. This is without accounting for what AVs will do, just what shared vehicles services are ALREADY doing—and they are just getting started.

This report takes you through a city’s budget—both revenues and expenditures—and starts to think about what could happen as AVs become common place and e-commerce takes on an even larger role in retail. City leaders have to start planning for this future now if they want to have a voice in what AVs/e-commerce will do to their cities. AVs create a “potential rat’s nest of a budgeting challenge” (Fung 2016). This paper seeks to begin the process of untangling that rat’s nest, and provide the foundation for future phases of the project that will consider potential additional revenue sources to fund the infrastructure changes that may come from the integration of AVs and more widespread e-commerce.

Benjamin Y. Clark is an assistant professor of public administration in the School of Planning, Public Policy and Management at the University of Oregon. His research focuses on autonomous vehicles, public sector crowdsourcing, 311 systems, coproduction, local government management, and budgetary/financial management.  He teaches public management, public policy, and the applied research Capstone course. He has been an Executive Committee member of the Association for Budgeting and Financial Management (ABFM) since 2013. Prior to his career in academia, he worked for nearly a decade as a public servant at the local, federal, and international levels.

 

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