Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Truth, Lies, and City Budgets

The flavor of the week is "defund the police" -- the idea that the role of police (and their funding) could be reduced or eliminated and that money could be used on social services that would prevent crime instead. As a result, a lot of people who've probably never looked at a city budget before are suddenly trying to share information about how much money police departments have, and from some of the things that I'm seeing shared many people do not yet have good instincts for what is likely to be true. One graphic that I've seen shared repeatedly in different places purports to show the percentage of city funding in Columbus, OH (my nearest big city, though I'm not in Columbus itself) which goes to police. And as the OSU PhD candidate in Political Science who appears to be the source of the graphic quipped, it appears to show that "Cities are just police departments with some underfunded social services on the side"

The problem is, this graphic is deceptive to the point of being false.

Now, I myself am no expert on city budgeting. But this just looked very wrong to me, and like everyone else I've got access to Google, so I went and looked up the Columbus City Budget website. The graphic mentions the General Fund, and if you click on the link for the General Fund at the link above, you can get a detailed PDF breaking down that part of the budget. Here's what I found. The General Fund is a total of $965M in planned 2020 spending. Some of the other line items on the graph are correct, but it leaves out a large one in order to make its overall point. Police are budgeted for $360M but the Fire Department is the next biggest line item at $271M. The other line items are numerous and small, so it might be easiest to provide this graphic for the General Fund:
As you can see, the Police Department accounts for roughly a third of the total General Fund spending. But here's the thing, a city turns out to have multiple budget areas. The General Fund is not all of city spending. Click on the All Funds summary which is right below the General Fund, and you discover that total city spending across all funds is actually $1,816M. The General Fund is only half of spending. Looking all the All Funds summary, we see that major spending areas include Water, Sewage, and Storm Systems, Electricity, Street Construction, etc. Let's look at the big pieces of that total $1,816M in spending.
But wait a minute. When you think about your city, you probably think about city schools. Well, they turn out to have their own separate budget, which is provided here. It also breaks down into a General Fund and other funds, and the total of all those for the 2019-2020 school year was $1,523M.
So now we find that police spending is only 11% once we account for other funds and for Columbus Schools. But you know what we haven't seen yet? We haven't seen those social services that people are talking about funding instead of the police. Do we spend 11% of the city spending on police but nothing on helping people?

No. But different types of government funding come from different government entities. Social services come from a combination of state, federal, and other funds, and you can read about Ohio's total social services here. However, these are total Ohio numbers. It seemed like a fair solution for seeing how those social services weighed against the spending in Columbus on police would be to take the total Ohio population of 11.69M and the Columbus, OH population which is 892k and simply do a percentage allocation saying that Columbus got 7.6% of Ohio social spending. Now let's put that all together:
So, is a city just a police force with a few under funded services tacked on? No. That is a totally false statement designed to get clicks, and the only way that it was made to look like that was true was by deceptively selecting just some items out of the general fund of the city budget. And is police funding in general totally out of proportion with the funding of social services? That depends on what you think the right level is. Police spending is 6% of the total city, school, and allocated social service spending that I show on the above graph. Police spending is roughly equal to spending on Mental Health, Addiction, and Developmental Disabilities combined. Is that right? Informed citizens can made decisions about those topics, but no one can be informed when looked at flagrantly deceptive information.


Agnes said...

it is despicable to deceive people in such an inflammatory situation. I almost said it was as despicable as saying racial slurs, but I don't want to downplay the seriousness of the latter. On the other hand, this kind of deception also increases hatred and can lead to more aggression, so perhaps it is not wrong to emphasize its wrongness.

Antoinette said...

Fascinating and makes more sense.

Manuel Dauvin said...

Only one thing could replace the police. Responsible Parents. How you gonna fund that?

Skywalker said...

Just by looking at your taxes, people should guess that a huge chunk goes to school spending, if taxes are broken down in Ohio like they are in Texas.