It has become clear to us in the time we have been observing our local government that there are very few public measures available to determine what value we get for our property tax dollars, so we were very happy to see an attempt being made by AIMS to evaluate municipalities in some way. It seemed to us the AIMS Municpal Performance Report would be of interest, not only to residents but to the town itself, as a way to evaluate its performance relative to other municipalities and serve as a marker for improvement.
In our previous post looking at the report, we pulled out Wolfville’s numbers and we commented on our town’s relatively poor showing. In this follow up we want to contrast our results with Antigonish which is a town similar in size and make up.
Antigonish is also a University town with a transient student population and a similar “grant in lieu of taxes” situation. It ranks 18 out of 47 in the AIMS report. Compare this to our placing of 43rd of 47 . Why such a difference? The question is worth asking isn’t it? Even if the measure is blunt as Mr. Wrye suggests, since the two towns face the same report methodology the relative position suggests that Antigonish is doing something which makes it more successful than we are in managing its resources.
Looking at the input figures: We are similar in area ( sq. Km) in population and in dependency ratio (household makeup), but look at where we differ. Antigonish’s figure for revenue per capita is $1116, Wolfville’s is $1516. Wolfville takes in more revenue per person from whatever sources than Antigonish. But look at long term debt per capita: Antigonish – $199; Wolfville – $752
These are bald figures taken from public sources or from the municipalities themselves. They speak volumes.
Another telling number is the property tax assessment per capita figure: Antigonish – $57,019; Wolfville – $59,677. No surprise there. Also not surprising is the proportion of commercial property relative to the total assessment. It is larger in Antigonish at 31% compared to Wolfville’s 15%. But what about the “transfer per capita” number? For Antigonish the figure was $115, for Wolfville only $61
We cannot see how these comparisons are not helpful for the administration to look at, and that is before considering the outcomes portion of the report which attempts to measure effectiveness and efficiency in both absolute terms and “in context”. We won’t fill up the page with these comparisons, you can look at them yourself. In almost every category Antigonish does better than Wolfville.
Since our post prompted a response criticizing the validity of the report and defending the town’s performance in a comment by ex-deputy mayor Wrye, past president of the UNSM, we also wished to discuss some of the points he raised. So, while mulling over this follow up on our weekend “retreat”, we e-mailed AIMS to ask if perhaps they would like to respond to Mr. Wrye’s opinion of their work. We were very happy to receive an answer from Charles Cirtwell of AIMS and we thank him sincerely for his input.
Mr. Wrye has said in his comment:
The report card makes no effort to differentiate between municipalities or to grade municipalities on services rendered vs. cost.
The MPR does in fact make a conscious effort to adjust for the context of municipalities (their geographic size, population base, SES etc ) so if you want to see an apples to apples comparison, simply focus on the rows labelled “in context”.
Mr Wrye says:
There is no discussion of whether police services are 24/7 or 18/6, how many km of sidewalks, if any, there are, whether they are plowed, whether roads are paid by the municipalities or the province, whether there are any special cost sharing arrangements on roads, …
As for the question of “services rendered” – that can be found in all of the “effectiveness” columns. We have reported effectiveness measures that have been made available by the province and the municipalities through their annual public reports. We believe they are missing many important measures and we have no doubt that your readers could similarly identify gaps in what municipalities elect to tell you, the taxpayer, about the services they provide. The responsibility for filling those gaps rest with your elected representatives and the people who work for you through them.
Mr. Wrye says:
In Wolfville’s case to discuss the efficiency and effectiveness of the police department without adding in the 1,000 + students on campus makes the results a joke. Nor is any consideration given to the fact the Wolfville’s largest employer is non taxable and what if any impact that has on the town’s infrastructure needs and operational expenses.
In terms of the specific comparability concerns raised: Many other municipal units have both significant itinerant populations and large portions of their tax base that is non-taxable. Unfortunately, neither the province of NS nor the municipalities in Nova Scotia deemed either of those measures of sufficient relevance to report as part of their indicators project.
That said, we would note that Antigonish, for example, which is also a “university town” does very well in our first performance report – consistently performing at or above the provincial average and at or above expectations adjusted for context. As does Halifax for that matter, another community with a significant itinerant population and large swaths of non-taxable property and activities. However, Sackville NB , much like Wolfville has mixed results.
Mr. Wrye says:
When the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities recommended that its’ members not participate in this survey it was for this very reason. We had viewed the questions being asked and recognized that the answers would not allow for a fair or intelligent comparison of municipal services. There are simply to [sic] many variables from one municipality to the next to have any kind of fair comparison.
…we have an open, public and standing invitation to any group or individual, including the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities, to suggest measures to add for the next performance report. We must, however, insist on three conditions: the information has to be relevant to all municipalities, not just yours; it has to be quantifiable, no guesses allowed; and it has to exist – a measure that would be nice to have, until it actually is collected is just that, nice to have. That invitation was issued as part of our interim report card in 2008 – [link] and, as your correspondent notes, the UNSM actually was invited well before that to suggest alternative measures and direct us to additional available data that they judged it important that we include.
As for the idea that municipalities are so special that no two can ever be compared, we would fundamentally disagree and the regional, national and international experience would support our position. Ontario , Scotland , and New Zealand (to name just a few) all have comprehensive reporting and ranking regimes in place to compare and assess municipal service levels and costs. Even the province of NS in collaboration with NS municipalities has identified comparative “municipal indicators”.
And WE say: Perhaps the UNSM should not decide whether or not to participate; maybe it should be those they serve who should decide. That’s us — the taxpayer.
Mr. Wrye concludes:
AIMS’ out seems to be their statement to the effect of that while we have given your municipality a poor grade we will leave it to you to decide whether you like what you are getting. This sounds good but most people have trouble getting past the grade. And even if they do without all of the factors taken into account and without knowing all the comparables how can anyone know whether Lockport is that much better than Annapolis Royal or whether it simply does much less.
Mr. Cirtwell concludes:
We make no apology for the fact that our performance report focuses on municipal efficiency and effectiveness – other reports look at other things. But as I said in this piece from the Telegraph Journal, simply providing lower or fewer services will not a good grade give you.
We conclude: AIMs exists to promote informed public debate about important issues affecting us. By putting this report together we think AIMS gives residents, staff and councillors an initial yardstick which should be discussed with the purpose of improving our town. We wish this report had not been dismissed so cavalierly by Mr. Wrye since it covered a period for which he was at least partially responsible, and we hope it it is not ignored by those who are presently accountable to us, the electors. We think that it would be desirable for our present Council to cooperate with AIMS in future reports and to make it an aim to improve our town’s standing.