How much do counties in Indiana actually spend?

Indiana has built a great resource for local government transparency.

Over several years, the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance, with the assistance of IU’s Indiana Business Research Center, has developed an extensive gateway to the finances of counties, cities and towns, townships, libraries and special districts. They have also incorporated school financial data collected by the Department of Education.

It’s as close to one-stop fiscal fact shopping as we can imagine at this time. The Gateway is a treasure trove for deep-depth data divers.

None of this would have been realized without leadership from the Mitch Daniels administration and on-going support from the Pence administration. Equally important, Hoosier legislators have become thirstier for data-enriched discussion.

Just sampling the data will keep countless advocates and opponents, journalists and researchers, busy for years to come as the Gateway files grow. That’s the benefit of this resource. There is, however, a companion danger of shallow or erroneous interpretation with more data in the hands of biased or untrained persons.

Thus, I could report, according to the Department of Local Government, Boone County had the most expensive county government in 2014 with per capita spending at $4,747. That’s more than eight times the per capita $560 spending of the Jefferson County government.

Can’t you see the headlines in Lebanon? “Boone government spending out of control; leads state in expenditures.” Meanwhile, the Madison paper could rejoice, “Jeff Co. spends less; government tops state in stinginess.”

In Connersville, they could proclaim perfecting mediocrity by having the state’s median per capita county expenditure. In Columbus, with a bit of work on the Gateway, someone could compute that the six cities and towns, the one library district, the county government and the 12 townships of Bartholomew County in 2014 spent a total $133.4 million. The interpretations are endless.

How much spending is too much? Are the figures really comparable? Are apples in Benton County the same as apples in Blackford or Brown counties? Is Boone County spending so much because it is growing and growth is expensive? Could Bartholomew County actually save $3.5 million if the 12 townships were eliminated?

Only a maniacal methodology mole might notice the population figures used to compute the 2014 per capita expenditures are from 2010, not 2014. Why is the year for the numerator (spending) different from the year for the denominator (population)? According to the Department of Local Government Finance, “Indiana Code calls for a report that includes each local government’s total amount of expenditures per capita based on the most recent federal decennial census.”

Why? What’s the result? By using 2010 population and not the Census Bureau’s 2014 data, Hamilton County’s 2014 per capita expenses are over-stated by 10 percent; Union County’s spending is understated by four percent. The fast growing county is made to look worse; the declining county looks better.

Oh, the exquisite joys of more data. Who needs Christmas as long as we have the internet?

Morton Marcus is an economist, writer and speaker who may be reached at mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.