Civic Righteousness via Percentages

A NEIV promise of success has come to the reformers of municipal governments. It has come through a new application of statistics, and its potency lies in the application of percentage of result to expense in the different cities, whereby comparison between different departments becomes possible, down to small details. It has come in local form, but the idea is national, and it is a fair presumption that the idea will speedily have national standing. Its local application has manifested itself in two states only, — Ohio and Massachusetts. In Ohio the working-out of comparisons has not been made in the document published in such a way as to be easily understood by the average student of municipal management. But the only report published by Massachusetts is presented in such admirable form that it is in itself a most encouraging promise that a large measure of reform in municipal management will be attained through the comparisons of percentages of expenditures to results obtained.

Two assumptions which may be accepted as facts for the purpose of the argument, and which perhaps are facts, lie at the beginning of the study of the case. One is that the greatest political evil of the times in the United States, and the greatest problem, is that of municipal government. The other is that the present tendency of the people of the United States to herd into cities will continue, so that the problem of city administration will soon concern directly more than half of the people of the United States, and that the proportion will continue to increase indefinitely.

This Massachusetts report referred to is entitled “ The Cost of Municipal Government in Massachusetts.” It is issued by the Bureau of Statistics of Labor, Charles F. Gettemy Chief, and is a work of exceptional value, and one of higher excellence than usual in the scope and detail of the statistical work which is presented. This is the first report of the sort ever published in this country, perhaps in the world, and it is of such a pioneer character as to make it appear as if it must, by the very force of its method and application to municipal problems, be followed in all its essential characteristics by every other state of the Union, especially by all those with one or more large cities.

Regarding the tendency of the people of the United States to congregate in cities, the report gives these facts among others: In 1800 the population of the United States was 5,308,483, and only five cities had a population of over 10,000, namely, New York, with 60,515; Philadelphia, with 41,220; Baltimore, with 26,514; Boston, with 24,937; and Charleston, with 18,824, — a total of 172,010, or 3.24 per cent of the population. In 1900, the population was 76,303,387, and the population of places of 8000 people or more (comparison of 10,000 is not given) was 24,992,199, or 32.75 per cent of the whole, and there were 545 places of that population. Massachusetts furnishes a striking illustration of the tendency to gather in cities. As late as 1875 the percentage of people in towns of 5000 and less was 32.83, but in 1905 it had dropped to 14.28. In the former year the percentage of persons in places of 30,000 or over was 38.30, but in 1905 it was 57.77. The director of the United States Census is quoted as predicting that in 1910 there will be 90 per cent of the people of Massachusetts living in places of 8000 or more population. This tendency is general to the country. Hence comes the importance to our political system of solving the problem of honest and efficient city administration for the physical, moral, and intellectual welfare of the children who must grow up under city government.

Brief mention of official acts preceding and leading up to this movement which has resulted in this encouraging promise in Massachusetts for the entire United States, was made by Dr. Edward M. Hartwell, secretary of the department of statistics of the city of Boston, at a conference of municipal auditing officers which met at the Hotel Bellevue in Boston, Saturday, January 18, 1908. In 1878 Minnesota established the office of state examiner to look after county accounts, and to prescribe uniform methods of keeping them, and the latter power was extended to state institutions. In 1879 Massachusetts put certain county accounts under the supervision of the savings bank commissioners. In 1887 the same state established the office of controller of county accounts. In 1889 North and South Dakota established the office of state examiner. Wyoming did the same in 1890. But the state examiners had no right to supervise city accounts, save that in 1891 the Minnesota examiner was given partial supervision over the accounts and financial reports of St. Paul, and in 1903 the same duties were extended over Minneapolis.

Credit for the first suggestion of uniformity in municipal accounts is given to Professor John R. Commons, then at the University of Indiana, who advanced the idea in an article on “State Supervision of Cities,” in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, in May, 1895. In July, 1896, a similar idea was treated in The Quarterly Journal of Economics by Mr. F. R. Clow, under the heading “ Suggestions for the Study of Municipal Finance.” In 1898, when President Carroll D. Wright, now of Clark College in Worcester, was the head of the national department of labor, Congress passed a law for an annual publication of statistics of cities; and the man most active in this movement was Secretary Maltbie of the Reform Club of New York City, now a member of the Public Service Commission of the same city. The statistics were to cover cities of 30,000 population and over. In the draft of a model municipal corporations act, made’ in 1898 by a committee of the National Municipal League, was a recommendation for uniform methods of accounting for cities.

The committee suggested schedules for trial. In 1900, Mr. Harvey Chase, a member of the committee, put the idea in practice in rearranging the accounts of the auditor of Newton, Massachusetts. Credit for the suggestions is given to Professor Rowe, of the University of Pennsylvania, who was on the municipal programme committee of the National Municipal League. These schedules have been utilized in Baltimore and Cambridge, and reform ideas in this direction have been adopted in Chicago, Minneapolis, Rochester, Pawtucket, and New Bedford. Ohio passed a law in 1902 for uniformity in municipal accounts and reports, and Dr. Hartwell quotes it as in force in 1904 in over 70 cities, 88 counties, 700 villages, 1600 townships, and 2800 school districts. All New York cities, except New York City and Buffalo, must report to the Secretary of State on uniform schedules, which are about the same as those of the National Municipal League. So the idea has been gaining ground among the students of statistical science.

The Massachusetts law was passed in 1906, and the report mentioned above is the earliest product under it. In Europe the idea has been in practice much longer in several countries. The Massachusetts law requires each city and town to furnish annually to the Chief of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor “a return for such city or town containing a summarized statement of all revenues and all expenses for the last fiscal year of that city or town; a detailed statement of all receipts and all disbursements of the last fiscal year, arranged upon uniform schedules prepared by the Chief of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor; statements of the income and expense for each public industry maintained or operated by such city or town, and of all the costs therefor, expenditures for construction and for maintenance and operation being separately stated; a statement of the public debt of said city or town, showing the purpose for which each item of the debt was created and the provisions made for the payment thereof, and a statement of all current assets and all current liabilities of such city or town at the close of its fiscal year.”

How important this statistical work of the cities is for their welfare, is set forth by Professor Charles J. Bullock, of Harvard University, who was a member of the Special Taxation Commission of Massachusetts in 1907: —

“ From his point of view the city auditor or accountant is conducting a scientific experiment station. From his point of view, your public official responsible for a system of accounting is conducting a laboratory in which are being worked out the data from which both the practical man and the scientific observer must get the data that are essential for the solution of some of the greatest problems of the age. So that, while this movement is to be commended as of great practical value for the improvement of the financial standing of our cities, it has far-reaching importance when we look upon it as a movement for gathering data essential to enable the student of modern social conditions to determine whither our civilization is tending, and whether it is likely to prove a failure or a success.”

Regarding the conditions which have hitherto prevailed, what Chief Gettemy says about Massachusetts is doubtless applicable to municipal accounting all over the country, as a rule. Here is the discreditable fact, as he puts it: “The student of municipal finance has hitherto been confronted with utter chaos whenever he has attempted to make comparisons of the important facts of a selected number of cities or towns for the purpose of ascertaining whether any significant deductions might be drawn from them. There has been no uniformity in classification of accounts, and in many cases no book-keeping worthy of the name. " Recommendations are made of legislation to correct glaring evils, and four of the six points are applicable in any city in the country: that all financial transactions should pass through the treasurer’s office, and be recorded; that expenses of the departments should agree when checked up with recapitulations; that all municipal trust funds should be administered by a common board of trustees; and that a uniform fiscal year should be established.

In such a report, as was to have been expected, headings are given for classifying the different branches of a municipality’s financial transactions, but these may be left to the special student. What is of consequence to the average citizen who is interested in good government is to notice how the percentages of expense in the different departments have been worked out, so that each city in the state can be compared with any other in respect to any detail. There are thirtythree cities in the state, and they are ranked according to population, with statements of the totals of their expenses for the year under consideration, their valuation, the rate of tax per $1000, the per capita of current expense, and the percentage of the total expense to the valuation. For instance, Boston stands at the head of the list for current expense per capita, with $26.69, while it is at the foot of the list in percentage of current expense to valuation, the figure being 1.25 against 2.15 for Chelsea, the highest; and the last figure was based on conditions before the great fire. That shows that Boston’s liberal expense, compared with the $9.58 of Chicopee, at the foot of the list, which has a percentage of 1.92 of expense to valuation, does not bear nearly as hard upon the taxpayers as the seemingly lighter rate of Chicopee, and is really the lightest in the state. Another table shows the per capita of debt in the cities, Boston leading with $111.90, and Somerville having the lowest, or $20.55.

But a still more practical table for the critic of a city administration is that which shows the percentage division of expenses between the municipal departments. Here the total one hundred per cent of expenses is divided under the following heads: general administration, police department, fire department, protection of life and property other than police and fire, public health and sanitation, highways and bridges, charities and corrections, education, libraries and reading-rooms, recreation, and soldiers’ benefits. The average for all of the thirtythree cities is given, as well as the items severally for every city by itself.

A still further searching analysis is given in a table in which the aggregate per capita expenditure for each city as a whole is taken and separated into the amounts which have been spent respectively for the departments named under the classification above. In addition, there is given the rank among the thirty-three cities which is held by each city in respect to each particular item. Again, the amounts which are spent for the general administration of each city are analyzed further, so that the total one hundred per cent is separated into its proportions for legislative expenses, executive, financial, other general departments, city hall and other property not classified, election and registration, printing and stationery, and miscellaneous.

Then the Metropolitan Park District, which includes cities and towns in the suburbs of Boston, as well as Boston itself, is analyzed from the park point of view. Again, the total current expenses of general administration, not percentages but actual amounts, are given for the cities side by side, so comparisons are under the eye in a moment for the entire state. Still further, current expenses for protection of life and property are given with a detailed analysis which includes the areas of the several cities and their population, so that the relative congestion of population comes in as a visible factor in the expenditure for police and fire service. Expenses for militia and armories enter also into the showing. In the same way the expenditures for conservation of the public health are given, with the population for 1906, the square miles of area, the population per square mile, the per capita expense for the cause, the sum spent, the cost of the city physician, the inspection of school children, contagious diseases, hospitals, quarantine and pest-houses, and the inspection departments.

Further on are shown the expense for operation and maintenance of sewers, and the cost of refuse and garbage disposal, and in another table, the details of inspection of buildings, inspection of plumbing, inspection of wires, sealing of weights and measures, inspection of meat and provisions, and inspection of milk and vinegar. Highway expenditures are analyzed into general supervision, engineering department, street-repairing, street-paving, street-cleaning, street-lighting, and street-sprinkling, and eight other items of detail. So it is with the department of charities and corrections, — different departments set out in detail. Educational expenses show salaries, textbooks, repairs of houses, and so on. There is much more, all worked out carefully, and there is a large amount more for comparisons of the cities, and then the 321 towns are treated in a brief way, but still with much detail, comparisons being especially made easy between towns of about the same population.

Considering the great difficulties under which the report was prepared, the utter chaos prevailing between the municipalities and their manner of keeping their accounts, and the fact that many snarls were untangled before comparisons could be made, and considering also the vast mass of computations for comparison and percentages which had to be made after the figures were put into a form for comparison, the report is sure to attract attention by students of city management. It promises to be worth its cost and the unspeakable worry and ingenuity which it required for its preparation.

Now see where it leaves the science of municipal statistics. Here has been an evolution extending over more than thirty years. It has received the contributions of both statisticians and publicists. It has been growing in state and nation. It has risen from simple forms to this highly complex one. Now it stands forth in this system of comparisons by percentages in all the details of municipal management which are concerned in a dispute regarding good government. Science in this field has come to a basis of practical politics, and now it would seem as if an abundant fruitage must necessarily follow.

Here are two elements of successful government under a democracy which are made possible, — publicity and responsibility. For the first time, in a broad, practical way for all the cities of the state, — and for every state and for the entire nation, as soon as this example is followed, — there is publicity in such a way as to arouse popular interest. It is now so easy to check up the work of any mayor, board of aldermen, street commissioner, school superintendent, or any other official who has a responsible position, that the average citizen can see easily and intelligently what the situation is. Two lines of comparison will be possible. The official or the department can be compared with its own past. Facts will show at once whether this official is more or less expensive than his predecessor. It will appear whether the department is extravagant, measured by itself; and whether it is running as economically as it has been running, compared with the growth of population. Again, the department can be compared with every other city, near or far. If the administration is honest, economical, efficient in every detail, making a dollar go as far as possible and returning to the taxpayers a full equivalent for every dollar taken from them, then the administration gets credit in a way which has not been possible hitherto. With no general standard for comparison, the people of a municipality have not had a sufficient test to enable them to judge whether or not they were being served as they should be, and the heads of the administration have been equally without a comprehensive guide. But with a general average for every city in the state, there stands forth at once a criterion by which the taxpayer measures the efficiency of his own city government. If the comparison is good, then full credit is given.

This appeal to the public approval is likely to figure perhaps more than the reforming statisticians have supposed. It is a current complaint of municipal government that our best citizens will not share in it because they are so hampered that they can do nothing, and get no credit for merit if they have it. It is true that the publication of percentages of comparison does not change the system of administration, but it does give the most practical and most effective publicity for an honest and competent administration which could be desired. Honesty and efficiency are sure to show themselves in the long run. If here is a city department which stands No. 1 of all the cities in the United States in its accomplishment in results for the dollars expended, then every municipal administrator in the United States, and many citizens besides, will know the fact, and the man who has made the record possible will get credit for his ability and his honesty. In every case, merit is bound to receive its just reward, so far as justice can be reflected in the statistical statement of results and can be brought into comparison with other cities. Here is a new force which will bring better men into the public service, and will spur them on to give the people the best possible administration.

On the other hand, the percentages of comparison, other things being equal, will play the detective upon every dishonest and inefficient municipal department head. Where the spoils system is in full sway, where offices are the plunder of victory at the polls, and the man at the head knows little or nothing of the details of his business, comparison with departments managed on the merit system, by honest and competent men, working for an honorable reputation with even more zeal than they work for their salaries, will expose the dishonesty and inefficiency. Imperative demands will be made by the taxpayers for a change. Explanations which are not based on a real dif ference of conditions sufficient to justify the bad showing of the percentages, will not be accepted in the long run, however successful a local ring may be for a campaign or two. Revolt is sure to come, and the dishonest and incompetent officials will be driven from office.

Publicity of itself has the effect of making officials feel more responsible. Even though there is no dishonesty, and where the efficiency is sufficient to prevent a revolt, yet the fact that credit for merit is shown in the percentages of succeeding years will stimulate an official to see if his own record cannot be made better. Honorable pride will be stimulated by the certainty that if he does well his people and the people of other cities will have the truth advertised to them. The statistics, under the administration of the law, are automatic, constant year after year, and impartial. The light of publicity will shine about every department as it has not hitherto shone, and as it could not possibly shine with the chaos of accounting systems; and it will, of itself, tend to make municipal government better.

Still further for the encouragement of the pessimistic, this new system of comparison by percentages must inevitably result in stirring up public interest in municipal affairs. It will be much easier than ever before to get some clear idea of the management of city government. The average taxpayer can see what his city is costing, compared with some other he knows. He will become interested in running down accounts when they are straight and without mystery. He will feel as if he could follow the official in his policy, and the official will none the less feel that the taxpayer has his eye upon him. This added watchfulness will raise the public intelligence in public affairs, with a corresponding elevation of the efficiency of the service and a higher standard of what the service should be.

Now, all this advance does not concern the scheme of government at all. It does not involve any charter amendments. It has nothing to do with the various theories of one chamber or two, with more or less power and responsibility for the mayor, school committee, and heads of departments. It has nothing to do with the suffrage, with systems of balloting or any phase of election laws. It does not touch theories of taxation or sanitation, or education, or labor and capital, or any other side upon which the problem of municipal maladministration is attacked. It is simply a matter of reducing finances to a form favorable for comparison, and letting the system do its perfect work. It does not seem, perhaps, at first glance, as if much relief could come from such an unpromising source. But a study of the case shows that it has large and substantial promise, and it is quite possible that the evils of our notorious city governments will be relieved from an unsuspected quarter. But it must not be forgotten that it takes men to reform. Figures will never do it of themselves.