When Bloomington compares its finances with those of other suburbs, it comes out the best. Officials present slide after slide comparing the suburb with its peers and depicting its residents as blessed when it comes to taxes and the cost of services.
But when Lakeville runs similar sorts of numbers, it also claims to come out best. Bloomington isn't even close; in fact, on Lakeville's list, Bloomington is the freest spender of all.
Long after the state's school districts found themselves yanked down a path toward clear, crisp rankings of academic success, the relative performance of cities and counties remains mired in confusion. But a new state program called "performance measurement" is making a tentative start toward providing apples-to-apples comparisons that could finally tell residents how their cities measure up.
Topics covered include road conditions, crime trends, parks, libraries and human services. In some cases, such as crime, the data already is public, although it isn't always easy to find or analyze.
So far, the new system sidesteps some of the touchier issues, such as which places offer the best value for money -- the sort of questions people do ask, and that result in the kinds of disconnects on views in Bloomington and Lakeville.
Nevertheless, it's beginning to offer some glimmers of insight.
Who guessed, for instance, that Edina would wind up reporting one of the more badly decayed systems of streets? Certainly not the mayor of Duluth, a city with abysmal results on the same measure.
"We know our streets are in terrible shape and we knew they would be reflected in those numbers and they were," said Mayor Don Ness. "We are not a wealthy community and that makes it tough. Edina may look at our numbers and say 'that's terrible,' but we don't compare ourselves to Edina."
As of this month, there's a way for him to find out with the click of a mouse that Edina really doesn't have much reason to gloat. Its pavement condition rating is markedly lower than even Minneapolis'. Said City Engineer Wayne Houle: "It's a big concern. We probably should have started attacking it 10 years before we did."
A novel approach
Minnesota may well be the only state even attempting to bring performance measurement to local government, said Tracy Burrows, a Seattle-based expert in the field.
State Auditor Rebecca Otto, who helped devise the measures and now oversees the system, agrees.
"It gives us both hard numbers and public perceptions," she said. "It allows for an informed conversation between local governments and their constituents. If the roads are bad, the ratings will show it."
But both also agree that the system, in its infancy, still has some holes to fill:
• It's purely voluntary, so even though the state spends hundreds of thousands of dollars, collectively, to help induce them to take part, most are not. Less than a third of counties and just 7 percent of cities have signed up. Some fear, said Otto, that the results will be "misused."
• The system is heavily based on citizen surveys, and some of the response looks halfhearted at best. Eagan officials, for one, admit that their exemplary results need to be taken with a grain of salt, considering the tiny response rate.
• The result of the whole program is just a big pile of paper, figuratively speaking. The state is not compiling the results into any sort of comparative ranking that would show which ones are the top or the bottom performers.
"We don't have the staff," Otto said. "We're so sorry, but we have one less person in technology than we had before. If the Legislature doesn't allow us the staff to do the work, there are limits to what we can do, which is disappointing to me."
State of the roads
Even so, the data released this month offers a glimpse into key issues such as street conditions, which experts agree is a huge emerging problem, as local entities let infrastructure worth hundreds of millions of dollars crumble.
Cities and counties were asked to disclose either a scientific assessment of the overall condition of their pavement, if such a thing has been done, or to survey citizens on what they are seeing.
Although it may seem circular to inform citizens of what's going on by asking them what's going on, it turned out that the citizen surveys are pointers to very real underlying conditions.
A Star Tribune analysis of the data showed that Duluth had by far the greatest share of residents rating the streets as "poor": 65 percent. That's more than 20 percentage points worse than the next-worst figure.
That kind of sudden clarity, Ness agreed, may well echo in Duluth itself in the months and years to come as it decides how to spend its money.
Edina reported an exceptionally low objective rating of pavement quality: just 53 on a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 means falling apart and 100 means buttery smooth. Waconia carded a 62, but most of the few places to fess up on this score were in the 70s, including Minneapolis, Bloomington, Apple Valley, Woodbury and Savage.
At the high end of the scale, Eagan wound up with an off-the-charts level of admiration: 30 percent find their streets "excellent." And that is a clue to something that's real, said public works director Russ Matthys. "Our policy is that there shouldn't be any neighborhoods, any areas, any streets, that are less than 45," largely because when they droop to a certain point, they become hugely costly to fix.
'Hard to compare'
The new system seeks to supplant, or at least offer an alternative to, the age-old problem of city and county officials devising their own measures, cherry-picking statistics and comparison groups -- resulting in disconnects like the one involving Bloomington and Lakeville.
Asked how her city could look so good in its own analysis while sitting at the high-spending end of Lakeville's list, Lori Economy-Scholler, Bloomington's chief financial officer, said: "It's kind of hard to compare Lakeville to Bloomington" for a variety of reasons, starting with Bloomington's huge commercial sector, which both pumps money in and demands city spending.
John Jernberg, an analyst on Otto's staff, said comparisons need to be made based on a sophisticated cluster of city type, age and wealth.
Having said that, he added, they also seem to want to be treated "like snowflakes," each completely unique and impossible to compare. "Yet when you ask how they themselves compare, they'll say, 'per capita,' and you say, 'Exactly.'"
David Peterson • 952-746-3285