D.C.: Steep Expenses, Low Quality Are the RuleBy Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 1997; Page A01
Before any government can meet its payroll, first it must take attendance. From Texas to New York City to Montgomery County, managers typically assign one person per 504 employees to collect and check time cards.
And they make mistakes about 3 percent of the time.
Washington, by contrast, has 4,779 full-time employees who collect timecards -- one for every eight employees. And they make mistakes about 5 percent of the time.
Thus Washington spends $13 million more than similar-size cities to keep track of its work force each year -- and gets more errors for its money.
"It's irrational," said D.C. Chief Financial Officer Anthony A. Williams, who plans to turn timekeeping over to private contractors. "The point of this system is not accuracy but jobs."
Per capita, Washington spends more money and has more employees than any city in the United States.
That conclusion arises from interviews with financial control board members, former city officials and several national specialists in urban affairs. The Washington Post also obtained budget information from 10 cities, data from the U.S. Commerce Department and a study prepared for the control board that compared the costs of D.C. services with those of other cities.
The notion that the District is nearly penniless, that repeated cuts and burdensome state responsibilities have crippled it, finds precious little support from most analysts.
"Waste and lack of creativity is costing city employees their jobs," said John W. Hill Jr., executive director of the control board. "We wouldn't have nearly as many cuts if there was better management."
The problem, critics say, is that District officials and the D.C. Council have not rethought the cost, size and purpose of city services, with a few notable exceptions. And the stakes are considerable.
As urban analysts note, Washington officials confront a stark choice: continue to cut vital services to close a yawning deficit -- or reconfig ure services, root out mismanagement and preserve programs for the poorest.
"Washington is stuck in an old era," said E.S. Savas, a professor at Baruch College in New York City and a management consultant in a dozen cities and 43 nations. "Constructing competitive services and bids, trimming government and monitoring contracts are not a breakthrough in western thought. Lots of governments do it. It just isn't happening in D.C."
Lack of Management, Not Lack of Money
"I've worked as an advocate all over the country, and I've never seen a bureaucratic culture this resistant to change," said Marcia Lowery, of Children's Rights Inc., which pushed the legal case that sent the city's child welfare system into receivership.
The Post recently compared the District's per capita costs, staffing and, in some cases, quality of services with those in a half-dozen cities with similar demographics. Several of those cities -- New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore -- have high costs and large public payrolls.
Washington spends $3,600 more, per capita, on government services than do the State of Maryland and City of Baltimore combined. Overall, that's a difference of $2.6 billion.
The Post also compared services in Washington to those in two cities -- Portland, Ore., and Indianapolis -- that national urban specialists regard as leaders in trimming government and delivering high-quality services. These are some of the findings:
The District government spends $8,286 per person. Combined state and local spending is $4,649 per capita in Baltimore; $7,673 in New York City; $5,982 in San Francisco; $5,455 in Boston; and $4,804 in Philadelphia, based on a General Accounting Office study of 1994 statistics.
Washington spends more money on police than any city in in the nation, adjusted for population. The District has 7.18 police officers per 1,000 residents; New York has 4.23; Los Angeles has 2.66.
Per capita, Washington until recently had more police officers working in administration than Portland, a city of 490,000 people, had officers in its entire department.
Per capita, Washington spends more money on its fire department and has more firefighters than any large city in the nation.
Washington spends far more on overtime than other cities, costs that a recent control board study characterized as "staggering and not well planned."
Washington's schools spend substantially more per student than do those in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. Its school food costs are 10 times higher than in Baltimore, and its management costs are twice as high.
Washington's mayor's office employs twice as many staff members, per capita, as New York's and four times as many as Boston's.
The District spends more money paying off bonds -- $643 per resident vs. $255 for Baltimore and Maryland combined -- because Washington officials have used bonds to pay for employees, a practice forbidden by law in some cities and states.
Washington spends more than any city in the nation owning, leasing and maintaining its offices. It spends three times as much as Detroit, Commerce Department records show.
The District's mental health costs are double those of Baltimore, per capita, and the city spends $40 million a year on a half-vacant St. Elizabeths Hospital. "The evidence in this case," U.S. District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr. wrote recently, "indicates that the District's lack of compliance stems from poor use of [mental health] resources and not a lack of resources."
District officials often argue that such cost comparisons are inherently unfair, that Washington's expenses appear high because the city shoulders services typically provided by states and counties. But a recent report by the Greater Washington Research Center found that the District spends far more on "state services" than does Maryland, a state that provides a fairly generous social safety net. For instance, the District's child welfare agency spends three times as much, per capita, as Maryland's.
"Paradoxically, my agency is not underfunded," Jerome G. Miller, the city's former court-appointed receiver for the child welfare system, wrote in a report last summer. "The agency's problems have been more a result of inadequate policy planning and poor management than of inadequate budgets."
Stephen S. Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, has studied the city's economy and government for years.
"The District can argue that it will always look somewhat fat because of state costs," Fuller said. "But that doesn't account for all the overspending. It's like the District talks about losing weight but keeps on eating."
So what does the District buy with its extra spending and staffing? City officials often argue that Washington is a victim of its humane impulses. Its social service benefits, they say, are far more generous than those offered by Maryland and Virginia.
But, by and large, that no longer holds.
From welfare to AIDS services, unemployment insurance, legal aid and foster care, the mayor, D.C. Council and control board have chopped the District's benefits to a par with those in Maryland, and sometimes Virginia. Yet Washington's administrative costs -- its overhead for salaries, fringe benefits and offices -- remain far higher than in neighboring states.
The District, for instance, spends $1,125 per welfare case on administrative costs. Maryland spends $895 per case and Virginia $607 per case. D.C. officials spend more delivering AIDS, disability and child support services.
"We've turned massive quantities of human services over to private contractors," noted Rob Robinson, a former top aide to Mayor Marion Barry (D) and council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large). "Yet we've cut just a fraction of the agency work force. No wonder our administrative costs are high."
Quality, too, remains a problem. Many city residents can recite problem after problem with fire, police, sanitation and regulatory services. A recent city audit surveyed the Department of Human Services and found some employees vastly overworked and others "generally idle."
"All across the country, there is a realization that to get reelected, you have to keep the taxpayers happy," said Savas, the national management specialist. "That movement hasn't reached D.C."
Critics acknowledge that some city services are lean and reasonably efficient. Paul Offner, the health care finance commissioner, has cut $80 million from the city's Medicaid bill by slashing rates paid to hospitals and nursing homes. And officials in the Department of Public Works have repaired snowplows and sanitation trucks and redesigned garbage routes and soon will hold managers accountable for the cleanliness of their sanitation districts.
City spending on parks, libraries, sanitation, parking enforcement, juvenile justice and some health services is similar to that in many cities, from New York to Baltimore and Boston.
In some areas, Washington's spending is arguably undernourished. The city spends less on pothole repair and resurfacing than do most cities.
"It's real straightforward: The problem is money," said Cell Bernardino, acting director of public works. "The condition of the streets are the result of neglect and low budgets over 10 years."
But for many analysts, that's just the point. Even when the city was flush with money in the 1980s, city officials starved basic services.
"It's my sense that if the District had honestly started balancing its budgets back in 1988, we wouldn't have a problem today," said Phil Dearborn, of the Greater Washington Research Center. "There were a lot of questionable decisions."
Spending Heavily for Protection
Washington has the most expensive fire department, per capita, in the nation. The District, with a population of 540,000 and an area of 63 square miles, has 25 percent fewer fires than the national average. Yet Washington spends more, per capita, on fire protection than Detroit (population 1.1 million and 139 square miles) and Philadelphia (population 1.6 million and 130 square miles). And firefighters in those cities fight more fires.
Washington spends twice as much on administration and emergency medical services as Baltimore, even though that city has more people, more fires and 27 more square miles to cover. The Los Angeles fire department has a smaller total budget than the District, but it fights twice as many fires.
D.C. fire officials dismiss such comparisons as irrelevant. "We're one of the finest fire departments," said Chief Alvin Carter, the departmental spokesman. "We're comparable to any department in the country."
Carter's confidence is not contagious. For all its employees, the department has had dozens of vacancies and ranks 25th in the nation, per capita, in the number of firefighters on duty during daytime hours. Until Congress pumped money into the department last year, mechanical problems had shuttered eight fire stations a day, and the city was left with just one of its 16 ladder trucks in working condition. One of the broken trucks was assigned to the White House.
Fire Department officials have addressed those problems, buying three engines, two ladder trucks and 15 ambulances. And they have reduced overtime spending.
But political interference still hobbles the department, analysts say. When fire officials decided to close a few stations last year, the D.C. Council, fearing an outcry from constituents, imposed a roulette-style rotation that forced every station to close for two days. The busiest station in the city, with more than 7,000 calls, was shuttered as often as the most quiet firehouse, with 1,000 calls.
"It is a terrible decision," said Stephen D. Harlan, vice chairman of the control board. "It was politics overriding sound management." Congress stopped the practice last year.
Congress approves the city's budget, and it, too, has imposed questionable rules on the department. Congress has limited the Fire Department's ability to retire permanently disabled fire officers and has exempted firefighters from paying taxes while on sick leave. That, D.C. officials say, gives firefighters an incentive to stay out sick.
Washington's police department is no less well-endowed than the fire department. The city has more police officers per 1,000 population than any city in the nation and can rely on reinforcement from 1,222 officers with the U.S. Park, Treasury and Capitol police forces.
But, critics say, Washington has not bought better crime protection. The District's police budget is far larger, per capita, than that of Philadelphia, Baltimore or Detroit. Yet officers in each of those cities make more arrests than do those in Washington.
Police overtime spending also is a problem. Just 16 percent of the city's officers make an arrest each year, yet overtime costs are, per capita, among the highest in the nation.
"The lack of management -- bad management -- has played a tremendous role in our lack of effectiveness in fighting crime," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 1), whose Judiciary Committee oversees the police department.
The department has not conducted a performance review of a police officer in 11 years. Managers did not spend much of the $15 million that Congress allocated to buy new police equipment. And only 500 of the department's 3,500 officers are assigned to beat duties. In New York City, one-third of the force is assigned to patrol.
The recently released Mayor's Management Report, the District's first, documents layer upon layer of police officers laboring in purely administrative tasks. Twelve of the 15 employees in the department's human resources office are uniformed police officers. Nineteen officers work in the communications office, and 138 officers work in personnel development.
"These are cushy jobs that people just kind of floated into," Evans said. "You've got the wrong people working in the wrong jobs doing nothing."
Police Chief Larry D. Soulsby recently began to root out many of those officers and put them back on the streets. Barry said such steps have led to a "dramatic reduction" in homicides in Washington.
A comparison with other cities, however, provides a bit of context. Washington's homicide rate remains 350 percent higher than New York's and 250 percent higher than Philadelphia's.
An Expensive Legal System
First came the attorney for the child. Then attorneys for the city, the mother, the father, the grandmother and the court receiver in charge of child welfare trooped into the room.
"You've got six attorneys on one case," Wells said. "And that case lasts, on average, four or five years. And the city is paying every one of them."
The Greater Washington Research Center recently analyzed the $87 million budget of D.C. Superior Court. It exempted the cost of the judges' retirement funds and the social services division, as other state courts rarely foot such costs. And it took into account the courts' differing workload.
It found that the District spends $113 per resident on court and legal expenses, compared with $43 per resident in Maryland. The city's criminal caseload filings, per capita, are about the same as Maryland's. The District could save $45 million if it brought expenses in line with Maryland's.
Washington spends 50 percent more than San Francisco spends to maintain courts.
Court costs appear higher across the board. Salaries for D.C. trial judges are 43 percent higher than for their counterparts in Maryland. The city spends more for accused felons' representation than Maryland does. The District caps attorney fees at $2,450 in a felony case; Maryland caps them at $1,000.
And when court administrators ask the D.C. Council for more money, they tend to get what they want.
"The council gets substantially lobbied by the court administrator and the chief judge," said Carol S. Meyers, the council's former budget chief and an associate with the Greater Washington Research Center. "They give out very little information on their budget and think nothing of lobbying Congress if the council doesn't give them what they want."
The council has rejected pleas by the city's corporation counsel to limit the amount of money a jury can award a person seeking a judgment against city government. The District spent $14.5 million on settlements and judgments in fiscal 1995.
Baltimore, by contrast, put a ceiling on jury awards and consequently spent $4.6 million on such settlements in fiscal 1995.
Laws Violated, Competition Avoided
In part, critics say, city officials appear uninterested in reform. In 1992 and 1993, then-City Auditor Otis H. Troupe flagged major problems in the District's schools, from inflated lease costs to falsified personnel and budget numbers that resulted in massive deficits every year. But school officials and the council paid little heed.
Last year, the District's Comprehensive Financial Audit found that various agencies had violated 29 laws, from treatment of prisoners and foster children to auditing of federal grants and contracting practices. A year later, the audit found that officials had "failed to resolve" 26 of the violations.
The District, national specialists say, also lags in its attempt to streamline government and improve services.
In Portland, Phoenix, Indianapolis, New York and Philadelphia, municipal officials routinely encourage private companies to compete with unionized city workers to provide services from garbage collection to tree pruning. Indianapolis turned half its sanitation districts over to private companies and saved $5 million.
In other cases, city workers competed and won -- and substantially cut costs.
"The issue is not public versus private," said Savas, the management specialist. "It's monopoly versus competition, and allowing the city agency to compete just like everyone else."
Barry has transformed some city departments into quasi-independent agencies. But District officials have not conducted any competition between private companies and public unions.
Bernardino, the acting director of public works, said that his sanitation operation is inexpensive and that it would make little sense to consider a competition aimed at switching from three- to two-person garbage trucks.
"We'd have to redesign all our routes," Bernardino said. "That only works in cities that have less density."
But cities with substantially higher population densities than Washington -- including New York -- have adopted two-person sanitation crews. Two national studies have found that cities that employ competitive contracting in sanitation achieve savings of 27 percent.
The Post compared staffing and the quantity of garbage picked up each week in several major cities. It found that a sanitation worker in Washington, on average, picks up 10 tons of garbage per week. In Indianapolis, a worker picks up 35 tons per week. In New York, a worker picks up 39 tons per week.
"If Marion Barry is serious, he's got to pick the services where the private sector can logically compete and put it out for competition," said Harvey Robins, who served as operations chief for two New York City mayors. "And he's got to be serious about the consequences: Whoever wins gets the service."
Too Many Timeeepers
By November, Williams intends to fully automate the taking of attendance and issuance of paychecks, saving millions of dollars.
City Administrator Michael C. Rogers argues that the Barry administration has cleaned up many problems and that more reform is in the offing.
Toward that end, his office has held two workshops for mid-level bureaucrats and chosen 35 managers for a year-long management training fellowship at George Washington University. Rogers's office also complied with a long-ignored congressional mandate and released a Mayor's Management Report.
That report, Rogers said, is a measuring stick to judge whether garbage is being picked up and alleys cleaned. The report for the first time delineates how many employees are in management within city departments, and it sets goals.
But the book is inconsistent. Often, no two departments responded to the same questions. Key departments, including Public Works, left half the measurements blank. Chapters on human and juvenile services include no information on errors in processing claims or on the length of time it took caseworkers to respond to calls for help.
"If you don't say where you made mistakes, it's a novel-writing exercise," said Robins, the former New York operations chief.
Williams has taken his own steps to reconfigure District government. His staff is trying to establish the lowest, best cost of city services.
And he has dismissed 200 employees citywide who, in his judgment, could not perform. But he said broader reform needs mayoral leadership.
"It's the $64,000 question," Williams said. "It's by necessity a circuitous process to do this without leadership from the top, from the mayor."