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Posted on May 3, 2016
It has now become clear that the City of Tallahassee budget staff presented distorted facts about General Fund spending trends to City Commissioners at the inaugural budget workshop for fiscal year 2017 on April 13th.
This finding comes amid a request by citizens groups to roll back the 13% property tax increase passed last year.
The issue was first publicly addressed by FSU Professor Shawn Kantor who spoke at a City Commission meeting on April 27th. Professor Kantor presented a chart that showed a steep increase in General Spending over the last six years when adjusting for City population growth.
However, during the inaugural budget workshop, a chart presented to Commissioners by City staffer Robert Wigen showed spending climbing at the same rate as the City’s population.
This was not consistent with actual spending and population data.
In addition, Mr Wigen reinforced the visual representation by telling the City Commissioners that after 2010 spending increased “with a slight uptick but still below the population levels.”
Take a look and listen:
Given the fact that growth in the General Fund when compared to population is a pretty simple fact to verify, how did City staff create a chart that shows population growing at the same rate as the General Fund expenditures?
Why does a visual representation of population growth and General Fund not show what simple calculations do – that General Fund expenditures have increased at three times the rate of population?
This is where the distortion comes in and here is how it happened.
In the preparation of the chart, the City used different scales on the chart for city population and the General Fund expenditures. This distorted the relationship between the growth rate in population and expenditures.
Experts told TR that “statistical graphs with two vertical axes are particularly prone to manipulation and distortion: the impression of a reader will be very heavily influenced by what intervals are used and how the lines or bars are placed against each other.”
For example, the left part of the City chart includes 40% of the range from 0 to 150,000 while the right side of the chart shows approximately 14% of the range from 0 to 195,000. This set-up magnifies population growth and minimizes the growth in the General Fund.
By doing this, the population looks like it is rising with General Fund spending from 2010-2015 even though a simple calculation reveals something different.
What would a chart look like that used the same scale for population and the General Fund expenditures?
Unlike the City created chart, the chart above shows that spending growth began to slowly outpace population growth after 2010 . The most significant increases have occurred in the last three years.
The City’s own data shows that the per person spending by the City in 2015 and 2016 is as high as the per person spending by the City just before the Great Recession in 2005.
The City staff has yet to provide this information to the City Commissioners. The next budget workshop is May 11th.
TR will continue to investigate the impact of this finding on the City’s budget decisions.