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Front Page » Opinion » Give legislative effort to grade 479 local governments a ‘D’

Give legislative effort to grade 479 local governments a ‘D’

Written by on March 3, 2020
Give legislative effort to grade 479 local governments a ‘D’

In a misguided bid to letter grade every county and municipal government from A to D, Florida’s legislature is creating a complex solution in search of a problem to solve.

House action this week could require 479 governments to submit data every year that would let Florida grade each one in five categories and rank them.

Government would then post the grades on the web and mail a copy yearly to each registered voter tailored to that voter’s city and county. That’s more than 13 million report cards.

The purpose of this red tape swirl, the legislation says, is to “enable residents to compare community conditions and government performance metrics of counties and municipalities.” 

I love comparisons. But I don’t know how to rank my local governments (city and county) based only on five grades assigned by a bureau of people in Tallahassee who would not be taking into account local conditions, just the numbers.

As a story we published last week said, the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties oppose the report cards. They note that demands on college towns and tourist communities differ from cities they’d be ranked against. Those communities spend more per resident on local government because they have to deal with people who don’t live there. 

Think about Miami Beach, which spends heavily on police and a convention center – in fact, much of its government – for visitors. Or Key Biscayne, which may have the largest police force per resident of any Florida village as it deals with tens of thousands of drivers who roll through on the way to Bill Baggs State Park.

These communities, like all the others, would receive:

■A government spending grade combining “the average annual spending per resident for the past five years and the total increase in spending.” But most communities face special circumstances. 

Think about average spending per resident in the Panhandle, which lost people after Hurricane Michael hit in October 2018 while spending skyrocketed to restore the area. Those cities would rate horribly due to the hurricane’s impact but may see spending plunge as damage disappears. They’d go from D (the lowest grade) to A as spending falls. Yet they’d no more deserve a D now than they’d deserve an A after five years. 

■A grade would combine average municipal debt per resident for five years and total debt increase in that time. Less debt sounds good, but it may show government doing too little. 

Miami-Dade, for example, is about to borrow $5 billion to upgrade its economic driver, Miami International Airport. That debt is repaid from airport revenues, not from taxes. Our economy will grow and the airport itself will pay the cost. That’s good. But it would lower Miami-Dade’s grades for decades as debt is being repaid.

Take also the environment: Miami, Miami Beach and others face major debt to stave off sea level rise. That could lower their grades but serve residents exceeding well.

■A grade would rate the number of government workers per 100,000 residents, their average salary, and the percentage of government spending on salaries and benefits. Lower spending will rate better, but that ignores quality of life – costs would fall if we had no public safety spending, but we wouldn’t want to live here.

If you count Miami-Dade commissioners we’ll look better than the other 66 counties because we pay full-time commissioners just $6,000 a year while every other county pays on a state scale – a single Broward commissioner gets paid far more than all of Miami-Dade’s 13 combined. We invite bad government by being cheap – but good or bad, it would look great in the letter grades.  

■A grade would combine violent crime, property crime and crime clearance rates. But those ratings aren’t always complete. Non-citizens fear police, so they underreport crimes. And “clearance” offers leeway to police that want to look good – clearance doesn’t mean someone is charged.

■An education rating combines average school grades and graduation rate. But in poor communities graduation rates are low. And an A is much harder to get in some schools than others.

Also to be reported is local population, but the Census only tallies that figure once a decade and Florida is highly transient.

The unemployment rate must also appear. But the US Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes two different Miami-Dade employment charts, in a recent month showing both 1.8% and 2.8% jobless here. The bureau ignores the chart that showed 1.8%, but that’s the one state government publicizes. 

The report card would subdivide Floridians under each government by educational attainment, which sounds simple except that nobody does that count yearly. 

Also listed on all voters’ report cards would be the number of special taxing districts impacting them and government revenue per resident for each county or municipality. But does that include state and regional governments too? And once all of that is computed, what’s it supposed to prove?

As a reminder, 479 governments must compile all this separately. How does Coral Gables, for example, compute average school grades and enrollments when it’s in a countywide school system? And does it factor in grades for private schools within its boundaries, or grades for non-Gables residents in Gables schools?    

Report cards would become a bureaucratic headache to compile and distribute, with ample ways to game the system to make any government look better.

Many companies, organizations and web sites list questionable Top 10 or Bottom 100 rankings that fill the Internet. This looks like a state effort to get into the game, perhaps somewhat more scientifically.

But even if statistics were totally fair and accurate, why bother?

The legislation says the specially tailored report card mailed to each household “must use colorful graphics.” We’d suggest all the color be red – as in red tape.