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New Yorkers Rate Their Government

by Glenn Pasanen, Dec 18, 2008
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As the city's budget woes escalate, tensions between Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council over taxing and spending also have increased. While the fight over where and how to cut certainly will continue into the planning for the 2010 preliminary budget, due out in just a few weeks, both sides might take a step back and look at the NYC Feedback Citywide Customer Survey, released in early December by the mayor and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum.

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What a close reading of this survey of over 24,000 city respondents, conducted by the National Research Center, a private firm, suggests is that New Yorkers have serious concerns about city spending and the effectiveness of a number of city services, including child protection, youth employment, homeless services, police-community relations, and protecting them from crime. Across-the-board cuts in these and other crucial areas -- as opposed to selective cuts based and new progressive revenues -- cast doubts on the mayor's budget strategy.

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The Current Mayoral/Council Fight

With a vote on the modifications slated for today, the council has resisted its usual rubber-stamping of the November changes in the approved budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Much of this tension has focused on the mayor's plan to cancel this year's $400 rebate to residential homeowners and raise property taxes on all commercial and residential property in January by 7 percent.

The council issued a plan with alternative agency cuts, worth $170 million in savings in the current fiscal year, and over $325 million in 2010. The council also proposed an increase in the city hotel tax, from its current 5 percent to 5.875 percent, worth about $80 million in new revenues.

Meanwhile, with city tax revenues dropping faster than projected (and perhaps in frustration over the council's delays) the mayor on Dec. 9 issued yet another warning about next year's problems. The city's budget director, Mark Page, told agency heads in a memo to come up with plans for yet another across-the-board budget cut for fiscal 2010 -- this one for 7 percent, saving $1.4 billion.

The new reductions translate into a $527 million cut in education and $286 million for the police department. These would be on top of 5 percent across-the-board cuts already under way as part of the November modification and estimated to save an initial $1 billion.

The Public's Perceptions of City Services

While the mayor has called for across-the-board cuts in all these cases, however, the public, according to the new survey, takes a far more nuanced view of city services. Respondents see different service results in different agencies. The Bloomberg/Gotbaum survey can help us see this, offering a sense of what the public thinks about much of city government today.

To the mayor's credit, many of the survey's 34 questions are tough, asking the public to grade his administration in several direct-service areas. On the other hand, the survey uses a grading system that makes the results look rosier than the actual data show. The press release from the mayor's office, for instance, suggests that in five of six broad service areas, 85 to 92 percent of the responses were positive.

This results partly from a generous grading system. Respondents can award services one of four grades: excellent, good, fair and poor. The first three are all aggregated for a single positive score, while only the fourth response, poor, is left out. Lumping fair responses with more positive responses seems to set a pretty low bar.

In addition, grades for various parts of a service area are combined for a single index score. Averaging responses across a number of questions in this way dilutes a range of responses within certain services areas.

Take the sixth area noted in the press release, social support services, which has an Index Score (excellent, good and fair responses added together) of 58. That means 42 percent of the respondents thought such services were poor. Bad enough. But, if we raise the bar to consider the fair responses (35 percent) as less than positive, then only 23 percent of responses (good and excellent) consider the quality of social support services positive.

More specifically, the social support services index score of 58 aggregates scores from five questions. Three specific questions paint an even more negative picture. Some 44 percent of respondents, for example, thought child protection services were poor, 46 percent said the availability of youth employment programs was poor, and 48 percent said services addressing homelessness were poor. (In those same three questions fair responses ranged from 33 percent to 35 percent.)

The limitations of the index scores are also evident in the citywide public safety score. The overall score of 85 averages answers on services in five separate areas, including police and fire. A close look shows that the public judged fire and emergency services much more positively (76 percent and 67 percent of respondents said they were excellent or good, respectively) than crime control and police-community relations (which were rated only 42 percent and 40 percent excellent or good, respectively).

The different opinions about services persist in the neighborhood public safety index score, where respondents assessed the quality of services in their own neighborhood rather than citywide. Some 82 percent of respondents judged their own fire protection services excellent or good, and 72 percent thought their local emergency services excellent or good. Yet only 49 percent considered crime control and police-community relations in their neighborhoods excellent or good.

The survey includes questions about the city's largest budget area: public education. All respondents, whether they have children in public schools or not, were asked about the quality of public education and after-school programs. On public education, 78 percent of respondents said they were excellent, good or fair; on public after-school programs, 71 percent.

But in both questions, the fair responses were by far the largest. Only 38 percent of respondents judged public education excellent or good. Only 33 percent said after-school programs were excellent or good.

On the other hand, among those respondents who have at least one child in the public schools, the results were more positive. Fifty-six percent thought the public schools are excellent or good, and 57 percent thought after-school programs are excellent or good.

A section entitled "Overall Quality of Government Services" drew especially interesting responses. On the title question, 4 percent said the overall quality was excellent, 38 percent said good, 44 percent fair and 15 percent poor.

But in a second question in the same section, "Does the city government spend tax funds wisely?" the results were much more negative. Only 22 percent replied excellent (3 percent) or good (19 percent), while 37 percent said fair, and 41 percent said poor. Those numbers could serve as a sobering backdrop for the mayor and council as they fight over tax increases and agency cuts.

More Budget Data

The survey deals only with public perceptions. For those interested in more quantitative data, the mayor's Office of Management and Budget also released in December its latest Budget Function Analysis report, 513 pages that provide a highly detailed budget benchmark for current revenue sources and expenditures in 16 city agencies. (The education department, by far the city's largest, is not included.) In the case of the police department, for instance, the report lists 20 operating functions and what is spent for each in the $4.4 billion department budget.

Unfortunately, welcome as more budget information is, the Budget Function Analysis does not link program functions to performance outcome data, although each agency's report does offer an electronic link to the Mayor's Management Report. This is a reminder that the City Council has done better work than the administration in this area. Its little-known Budget Transparency Initiative not only breaks down agency budgets into program areas, but also includes relevant Mayor's Management Report data in an attempt to match dollars spent with performance outcomes.

All these tools could, of course, work together. The mayor's willingness to allow the new survey to test public perceptions of his administration's performance and the council's own focus on performance measures could generate a joint fiscal strategy that acknowledges the need for new priorities and sacrifice, goes beyond across-the-board service cuts and takes a serious look at a more progressive tax system.

Glenn Pasanen, who teaches political science at Lehman College, has been in charge of Gotham Gazette's finance topic page since 2001.




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