Cook: Budgeting for something

Cook: Budgeting for something

August 23rd, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

After Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke announced his budgeting-for-outcomes plan, I cheered. It's intelligent, cutting-edge, responsible.

Or it's supposed to be.

The budgeting for outcomes process begins by identifying outcomes, or goals. Berke chose four: safer streets, stronger neighborhoods, smarter students and sounder city government.

Then, leaders and staffers in each department propose their best ideas on how to reach those goals.

Want safer streets? Hire 40 new police officers, for example.

These best ideas are then selected and funded. Hence, budgeting for outcomes.

So far, so good.

But then several of us began to ask: What are the baseline measurements you are using to know whether you're reaching your goals? Where are you starting?

We asked. And asked. And asked.

Top staffers. City Council members. Department heads.

Your goal is to have smarter youths? How are you going to evaluate the specific plans you will put in place to reach that goal? Your goal is safer streets? What plans do you have in place to reach that goal and how are you going to measure them?

No one had a good answer.

"It's a little bit of putting the cart before the horse," said Andrew Kean, the city's chief operating officer.

Kean and I spoke for 30 minutes Tuesday afternoon, hours before the city would approve 9-0 the first reading of the mayor's 2014 budget. Kean said it was too early for measurements: The budget hadn't even been passed, nor had the initiatives (the good ideas chosen in the idea-marketplace) been implemented.

"Until we do and develop a baseline of technical data, it is not a productive conversation because it is so early in the process," he said.

Yet 13 days earlier, Kean released a three-page document to City Council members about budgeting-for-outcomes that contained some very specific goals.

And most of them are immediately measurable because data is already available.

Which means baselines can be set.

So let's roll up our sleeves and do it for them.

Here are six measurable goals listed in the document Kean gave the council.

1. Decrease the dropout rate.

Hamilton County's drop-out rate was 9.9 percent, according to the 2012 State Report Card, the most recent available.

2. Increase the number of third-graders reading at proficient levels.

Only 46.9 percent of all Hamilton County third-graders were proficient or advanced in reading, Report Card data shows.

3. Decrease violent crime rate.

In 2012, the city's violent crime rate was 1,037 per 100,000 people, according to police statistics.

4. Reduce the city's energy costs.

In 2012, former Mayor Ron Littlefield ordered the city to reduce its energy costs by 25 percent by 2020. His plan would save $2.85 million annually.

Is Berke reintroducing Littlefield policy?

5. Increase the number of Chattanoogans over the age of 16 who are employed.

In April, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced our city's unemployment rate at 8.4 percent.

6. Increase the percentage of city employees trained in the areas that directly impact their work.

Ummm ... we have city employees who aren't trained in the areas they work?

In total, there were 17 goals identified, each with a corresponding set of initiatives, or things City Hall thinks will move the needle.

Some sounded excellent: "implement community policing" and "improve fire and rescue response times" and "supplement educational opportunities in the community."

Others were head-scratchingly vague: "bridge the digital divide" and "maximize the utilization of city spaces" and "build complete communities."

Even worse were others, tacked on like an afterthought: "improve customer service" and "empower employees and encourage creativity" and "increase inter-departmental communication."

The budget allocates $7 million to this budgeting-for-outcomes approach. The mayor has spoken about it many, many times.

But no one was able to establish a baseline set of measurements as a starting point? Doing so for almost half of the goals took me about 45 minutes, and left me with even more questions:

Who is going to measure this? How frequently? And what's the goal for each goal?

You want to decrease the violent crime rate? By how much?

Not publicly answering these questions turns the budgeting-for-outcomes process into little more than window dressing. Worse, it turns the process into a three-card monte, where things are shuffled and moved around, and City Hall measures what it wants, when it wants to.

Doing it that way, they can create any outcome they want.

That's not a transparent process.

And it's sure not sound government.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.