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It took me three times to hear it from different people before I fully realized The question, “Let me ask you this, Lewis, are you FOR growing government?” was a baited question. By the third time, I realized it was rehearsed and work shopped, like “Lewis, if you were indicted for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
The second one caused me to think when I heard it several decades ago. The first one worries me. Both can be intimidating but for different reasons. Actually, my favorite is the question released by the encyclopedia salesman visiting poor rural folk that basically conveyed, “you don’t want your children growing up as dumb as you are, do you?”
Let me get one point on the table. I’m not a Democrat. I’m not a Republican. And I’m not Tea Party. They are all liars, and none of them care about me or my future or my family’s future. They are all self-serving and exist to make themselves look good and their opponents look bad. So there.
This blog is mostly about the question in the subject line.
I’m for the old fashion truth. Facts. Looking for the heart behind the words. Wanting to adhere to the Athenian Oath about leaving this place better than I found it. I’m pretty simple. I don’t like labels that color me inside or outside somebody’s circle. I struggle to be a good listener, and I don’t enjoy being around those who don’t listen. I like civil conversation. Take a few minutes to view this TedTalk clip. After 68 years, 44 in local government, I am still a student. A curious student with a desire to match what I am learning and the words I am hearing with that I am seeing with my own eyes – and verify or confirm independently.
Let’s Dig In
Let’s suppose someone says, “Did you know that the City of McKinney, Texas is an empire building, tax and spend city that has mushroomed, atomic bomb style, from General Fund employees numbering 613 to 841 and with a budget leaping from $80,465,607 to $140,717,846 (that’s one-hundred and forty million, seven hundred and seventeen thousand+ dollars in just ten short years? Hell, Lewis, you live there. Are you for them GROWING THE GOVERNMENT and sucking up those tax dollars like a vacuum cleaner plugged into a 220v outlet? Are you one of those unpatriotic liberals, huh, huh?”
After I peeled all of the labels off of me, I would have this reply. Your numbers are correct yet incomplete. Your conclusion is bad and terribly misleading. I will prove that to you if you are willing to listen. But first – if you will listen and let me speak without interrupting or anticipating your next statement. Then I will allow you to speak without me talking. Is that fair?
First, how do you think all of the services McKinney provides came about? Did the bureaucrats just sit around trying to think of ways to make their staffs larger? Did the council signal to the staff that big is better, so let’s get really great and see if we can grow bigger than Plano?
Have you ever watched their public meetings – they are videoed and archived? What you will witness is a parade of citizens that start out their three minutes with “we need your help,” “please fix this or that” or some statement that is motivated by an unmet need. However, way before that meeting, the staff has fielded several hundred calls or the council several dozen calls from a variety of constituencies pointing out a need. Some are a few representatives from a youth sports league or the biggest HOA in the state explaining a need or perhaps warning of some dire consequences to the public if a health issue isn’t remedied.
Staffs and councils don’t dream up these problems and need for program expansions. Citizens do.
Before I get into some numbers, I’ll stop and let you respond to what I have said.
What if I told you that the City of McKinney was spending less today than 10 years ago? Yes, I said I agreed with your statement of fact that spending went from $80.4 to $140.7 million in ten years. But you left out two extremely important sets of numbers when you tried to make a statement that sounded conclusive and all-revealing with those absolute numbers.
You forgot to mention that the population grew from 104,853 to 155,142 during that exact same time period. Would you have expected McKinney to serve 50,289 more people without there being a cost increase?
The reality is that the City staff in the GF has actually decreased from 5.85 staff per 1,000 population to 5.42 in 10 years (line 14). Do you think your statement might have been accurate but misleading now?
In fact, the cost per capita based on the population growth went from $767.41 to $907.03 over the period in question. That is certainly an increase, but there would still be a missing piece to the more accurate story.
Do you think the costs of labor, material, fuel and other supplies are the same in 2015 as they were in 2006? In reality, the CPI is 18% higher than 10 years ago. Arithmetically, that is only 1.8% per year, which is very low. There have many ten-year blocks of time in the past when the CPI jump may have been 25-35% or more.
Nevertheless, if you care anything about meaningful and accurate comparisons, it is critical that the per capita numbers be adjusted for inflation. There are two ways to adjust the numbers, both with exactly the same accuracy, but with different perspectives. From college and even high school classes you will recall that indexed data can be placed on either a 2006 basis or a 2015 basis.
If you placed the per capita data on a 2015 basis, the $907.03 current value would raise the 2006 equivalent of $767.41 to $905.53. Yes, that is correct, on a 2015 basis, the CPI-adjusted cost per capital has risen from $905.53 to $907.03. A buck-fifty!
If the growth in spending for the last 10 years was restated in 2006 dollars, the change would be minuscule. Does that not amaze you? Do you see how outlandish and misleading you can make the data sound. Yes, it takes a little knowledge of proper indexing which any high school student can do. And a willingness to be fair and accurate before you make assertions.
You might ask if this method of data presentation is so much more superior and accurate then why doesn’t McKinney show the data in this proper context? My answer is that I have no clue. I have been teaching and preaching this fundamentally better presentation all across the state for years. The City of Pearland presents their data this way. Heck, the much smaller Fate, Texas does the same. To expand on this answer would require me to delve into my issues with the overused word, Transparency, which I will save for a future blog.
What if the CPI-adjusted spending per capita had grown to $1,000? Quite frankly, that was the range I was expecting. There would be an answer to that. First, the real CPI is much greater than the official numbers I have used. Just look at your own personal CPI. Is it only 1.8% per year. Plus there are increased costs of trying to be more effective in municipal service delivery. For instance, more expensive technology to protect a police officer or to help them catch criminals is generally an ongoing ramp up in cost. In every area of local government, there is a desire to be more effective. To respond faster, to repair infrastructure more timely to hold off more expensive replacement and much more.
There are also new or expanded programs. Everybody knows that the most significant way to keep costs down is to never start a program. Yet that is when we cycle back to the source of the demand to expand or even create new programs? The citizens. Park lands or medians looking shabby? Mow once every 5 days instead of every 10 in certain parts of the city. If you plant color beds in the medians, you have to keep up the maintenance. Open a branch library is not just another building but rather more of everything. And new facilities whether libraries, recreation centers or fire stations generally means huge incremental increases in operating costs.
So, how did McKinney add so much and keep the comparative numbers almost flat? That requires more digging, but a mandate almost every local government department lives under is to continually become more efficient. That doesn’t always mean doing more with less but rather doing more with the same. Or doing much more without an increase of resources at the same magnitude.
Apparently, the way to get elected in conservative Collin County and especially McKinney is (before you know the facts), just proclaim that growing government is just as bad as treason and that you are going to just say no with your fingers in your ears no matter reality. Or else. The “else” is that even after you get elected you are going to get texted during a meeting to remind you who brought you to the party, your pledge and the price you are going to pay if you get out of line. Here’s the deal, however, it can work right now in McKinney. Decent quality growth is on steroids, especially residential. Ultra-Conservative Bating is on fire and politically effective. The City of McKinney is doing very well financially. Actually, too well. More saved for blog in the near future.
If you think this blog is going to be an apologist mouthpiece for local government, you are dead wrong. I’ve got plenty I want to share. Stay tuned. LFM
BTW, if you read to this point and appreciate good analysis work and would like to have a copy of this Excel template, just let me know. I would be happy to email it to you. LFM