Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Comparing Your Municipality’s Spending to Your Neighbor

The Allegheny Institute for Public Policy is in the process of posting budget data for every municipality in the Allegheny County to help residents better understand what their elected leaders are doing and to help the politicians better understand what their counterparts next door are doing. The Institute hopes to have all the data on its website by Labor Day. The impetus for the report came from two fronts. First, researcher Frank Gamrat says the Institute has done a number of studies comparing Pittsburgh to other benchmark cities but it has never compared the municipalities in the county. Second, Gamrat says he took a phone call from a local elected official who wanted to know how his municipality’s spending on a certain line item stacked up to others in the area and Gamarat says he was embarrassed that he had no answer. The report looks at spending on items such as public safety, roads, and debt service and then compares one municipality to the next on a per capita basis. It also looks at taxation. Gamrat says the goal is not to pick on or praise any municipality. “It is just so municipalities can compare themselves with their neighbors and they can make better decisions when budget time comes around and they have nice discussions in their council chambers,” says Gamrat. Institute President Jake Haulk says it also will be a great tool for residents, “I dare say that most people have no idea what the spending per capita in their municipality is.”
“I think this will be a step forward to help people think about what the size of government aught to be,” says Haulk. Haulk says he thinks people will at the report and then ask questions such as, ‘why are we spending more on roads than other municipalities? Is it because we have more roads, or are we not paying attention when we let the bids?’ Gamrat says the report will be full of footnotes to help people understand anomalies such as a spike in recreation spending in a year when a new park is built or higher than usual income in a municipality that hosts a mall or other major facility. The institute hopes to update the data every year and may begin comparing municipalities by land size, average income or other factors.

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