Prior Lake City Manager Frank Boyles described it from the get-go as "one of the most put-off work sessions we've ever had." Meaning: delayed and delayed.

Once the informal, off-camera meeting between Prior Lake's City Council and its top staffers did finally get rolling, you could see why it might have been tempting to put off. The topic is about as perspiration-inducing as it gets:

What are we getting back for what we're paying you people? How do we know if you're doing better or worse than last year? Or better or worse than the city next door?

It's a conversation happening more often these days as a vogue develops for performance measures in government. In fact, just a day or two later Rosemount announced it's asking its citizens to weigh in on those same sorts of questions online.

In Prior Lake, the very first department head to settle into the "hot seat," as council members put it, began by confessing that some of the most common statistics used to justify police staffing numbers can be phony.

Police Chief Bill O'Rourke recommended looking at crime trends and arrest rates rather than what a lot of cop shops stress, which is "service calls."

"They are much more easily, well, 'fabricated' might be one way put it," he said. "It's hard to compare us with Savage or Shakopee because we don't get ICR [incident] numbers for everything we do.

"An example of that is -- and maybe we're the ones who do it incorrectly -- but suppose a citizen calls and asks for a parking variance for a wedding reception or grad party. We grant those. We don't assign an ICR number each time. We hardly ever say no. We don't get credit for an 'incident' for that. We haven't tracked it that way.

"We know other departments get an ICR for every call. The more you have, the more officers you can ask for. Seriously."

Gap in numbers

Indeed, the city's numbers show that Prior Lake's numbers of incident reports per capita are much lower than either of the other cities.

The biggest gap is with Savage: In 2010, Prior Lake reported about 9,700 incidents in a city of about 23,000 people, versus Savage's 16,000 incidents in a city of 27,000. Prior Lake's per capita average, in other words, is about one-third less than Savage's. Shakopee came in halfway between the two.

Shakopee Chief Jeff Tate said he is aware of law enforcement agencies in the area with generous rules along those lines, but his is not among them.

"We take pride in accurately reporting what it is we do," he said, "and that goes for 'clearance rates,' too," meaning rates of clearing or solving crimes. "You see numbers from some cities on clearance rates that make you scratch your head. I don't say in any way, shape or form that Savage does that.

"As for incident reports, we do not include parking variances in them. It's possible Savage does, but I don't know how many that translates to in a year -- it's usually just around the holidays that we get those calls."

The population factor

It's not that surprising, Tate added, that some of his numbers are higher than Prior Lake's per capita because population doesn't capture the full impact of Shakopee's tourist-attracting entertainment centers.

"Calculating by population doesn't take into effect we have Valleyfair and the 177 calls that generated. Or Canterbury Park. Or traffic heading through us to Mystic Lake. Or Renaissance Fair. Or Raceway Park. It's kind of apples to oranges to compare us on numbers."

Savage Police Chief Rod Seurer could not be reached for comment.

Statistics from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension show that staffing levels for Savage and Shakopee, adjusted for population, are much higher than Prior Lake's. They also show declining crime reports in Prior Lake and Savage, and a declining overall crime rate in Shakopee, taking into account its rising population.

The question for Prior Lake council members was how to make use of all the various numbers -- not only for police but other departments -- in judging what the city's getting for its money.

"Both the amount of crime and the effectiveness of police in reducing that are hard to measure," said council member Richard Keeney. "At some point you say, 'Is there a way to gauge us versus other communities, to define proper benchmarks?"

Learning the basics

At a minimum, said Mayor Mike Myser, it's important for council members to know the basics in terms of what's going on with violent and property crime.

That's now beginning to happen in Prior Lake, said the chief.

"People say, 'Why not give us police reports?' And the simple answer was, 'No one ever asks for the info.' Last year was the first time in 14 years that we presented an annual report to the City Council. These are metrics that are standard and can easily be compared to ourselves in the past, certainly, but also to others."

Council members don't want to put the wrong sort of emphasis on numbers, so that agencies start doing things to generate them.

Said Keeney: "Everyone speeds, so you could write as many speeding tickets as you want. It's different if you get the call that someone broke into their house."

In the realm of firefighting, council members were reminded that an outside agency that spends days in a city minutely inspecting its operations to produce a fire rating for the insurance industry has just recently been in town and will issue its findings soon.

Other city departments have their own sorts of measures, and council members got lots of paperwork on what they suggest as well as what other cities have done along these lines.

All sides emphasized that the session was just a first stab at beginning to come up with effective measures.

"You teach us," Myser said. "Help us with this. We don't know how to run a police department, and we don't want to pick the wrong metrics."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285