NOVEMBER
2011

 

By
Larry DeBoer
 
Professor of
Agricultural Economics
Purdue University

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11-24-11

Download the audio of Capital Comments: MP3, WMV

A Gateway to Indiana Local Government


Just in time for Christmas, or the holiday of your choice, Indiana's Department of Local Government Finance has released its new Gateway data site. It contains a virtual ton of budget and tax information about counties, cities, towns and other local governments. You can see it at https://gateway.ifionline.org.

A new toy! Let's try it out.

I clicked on "browse unit reports" to start and found a list of data. I thought "compare units' total spending/revenue" sounded interesting. Another menu selection on unit type was required, so I chose to compare "counties." Up popped the data. The table shows 2010 Census population, total budgeted spending, spending per capita (person), expected revenues and revenues per person for the 92 counties for 2012.

I clicked the arrows at the top of the spending per capita column, and the data sorted highest to lowest. Now I see which county governments spend more and less per person. This amount ranges from more than $1,500 per person to less than $300. People who want to criticize or praise their county governments for spending too much or too little might want to stop right here.

But let's not stop. You might think that the big urban counties would have the highest county government spending per person, but the four highest are Switzerland, Newton, Pulaski and Benton counties. All have populations less than 15,000 people. The big counties are in the lower half of the list. This might be an indication of economies of scale. Research does show that bigger units can provide some services at a lower cost per person than smaller units. Counties have to provide some basic services, even when their populations are very small. That can make for higher costs per person.

But wait. It may be that the cities and towns in the bigger counties provide services that substitute for county spending. Maybe when the population in a city increases, city police spending also increases; therefore, county sheriff's spending doesn't have to increase.

So I went back to "compare units," and clicked on "cities and towns." I tried to sort by clicking the arrow at the top of the spending per person column, but unfortunately it didn't work. There are some towns missing data, which creates division by zero, so the sort doesn't work. That's something to fix.

Fortunately there's a terrific work-around. I think all data websites should have a way to get the numbers from the Internet into your spreadsheet so you can really use them. Gateway does this wonderfully. There's an export button at the top of the table that lets you download the data into your spreadsheet. So I did.

I used my spreadsheet to sort by spending per person. Now we see the bigger units near the top of the list. There are 525 cities and towns with complete data. The top 100 average nearly 13,000 in population and $1,340 in spending per person. The bottom 100 average less than 1,000 people and $220 spending per person. There still might be economies of scale, but other factors are more important.

The highest spending municipality isn't a big one, however. It's Shipshewana, in LaGrange County, at about $4,800 per person. That's spending of $3.2 million with a population of 658. Why would such a small a town spend so much?

People who live in Shipshewana know a lot more about their town, but what we know in the rest of the state is flea market! And I might add, since I did a talk there in August, also a collection of beautiful Hudson automobiles at Hostetler's Auto Museum.

As a result Shipshewana gets a lot of visitors, so its town government must serve more than its 658 residents. If you could measure those added people, Shipshewana's per person spending wouldn't look quite so high. Here's more evidence: also near the top of the per-person spending list are Nashville (fall foliage) and Monticello (lakes).

Gateway doesn't have everything. Only data for 2012 are available. The school corporations aren't included. It only has assessed values for property taxes by tax district, not governmental unit. I understand there's more to come, but there's already more government data here than has ever been available this easily. So, Department of Local Government Finance: Please sirs, can we have some more?

 

 

 

Writer: Larry DeBoer
Editor: Olivia Maddox