Disclosure, disclaimer, discovery... once a year


Civic politics has its share of rituals, and one of them happens every year when the province releases Brockville's municipal performance measurements.

It goes like this: the numbers come out, revealing this or that cost increase in this or that city service; then city officials stress how unreliable the whole thing is.

There are too many variables between different municipalities to make a city-to-city comparison useful.

The methods used to measure the performance have changed too often to make year-to-year comparisons valid.

And more recently, new things are being measured (long term debt and amortization, for instance) that also cloud the picture.

And so with these grunts and groans, the measurements are passed and thrown online.

These disclaimers do have merit.

Case in point: the operating cost for paved roads per lane kilometre.

In 2011, the number was $467.32 per paved click, before long-term debt interest and amortization, while last year that figure shot up to $4,243.21.

Were our roads suddenly paved with gold for their costs to merit an 808-per-cent increase?

Not quite. The 2011 road paving cost was artificially deflated by what city officials call an “interfunctional adjustment.”

Essentially, there was a mistake in divvying up those general government costs, things like human resources and tech support, that are shared by all departments.

Then there's the matter of the violent crime rate, which was overstated in 2010 because of a mistaken “2,” inflating the number of assaults, beatings and homicides from 251 to 2,251 and thus turning us into the new Little Chicago.

Clearly, then, these performance measurements remain a work in progress – a 13-year work in progress, of the kind only a government bureaucracy can give us.

Once the ritual of disclosure and disclaimer is done, however, some small, interesting nuggets of truth do emerge.

There's no adjusting or amortizing the percentage of city sewage that accidentally bypasses the sewage plant and heads into the river. And that percentage dropped from 1.137 in 2010 to 0.605 in 2011, to a flat zero in 2012, which is good news.

And the number of water main breaks per 100 kilometres of water pipe dropped from 16.6667 in 2011 to 9.0909 last year.

And in 2010, the ratio of electronic to non-electronic uses of the Brockville Public Library mysteriously flipped – then flipped back a year later.

In 2009, it was 73-to-27 in favour of the traditional, non-electronic side, while in 2010 the poles shifted to roughly 61-39 in favour of electronic uses.

A year later, however, it flipped back to 60-40 in favour of non-electronic, where it stayed in 2012.

It's almost as if Brockville is saying: “We tried the Internet and didn't like it.”

Which would be bad news for bloggers like me.

UPDATE: Library CEO Linda Chadwick informs me the spike in electronic uses was due to a reporting error. I'll have more on this in Friday's city column, but it does mean Brockvillians have always preferred paper books. It also proves my point about the whole performance measures thing...