Indulge me while I complain about the Research Bureau

Among other, more exciting topics on tonight’s city council agenda are items 11a and 11b, which are communications from the Research Bureau.

Before I completely dump on the Research Bureau, there were some interesting parts of these documents.

On page 4-5 of the 10 Questions about Worcester’s FY12 Budget Report, there’s this tidbit:

According to data used by the Department of Revenue (DOR) to calculate local aid in FY11, Worcester’s per capita income is $18,336, or 31st lowest in the state. (The state average is $35,852.) Worcester’s equalized value per capita (the measure of a community’s relative property wealth) is $75,726, or 12th lowest. (The state average is $165,919).

On first reading, I was not a fan of 10 Questions; on second and third readings, I’ve found that I like the presentation of data (that is, where the city’s revenues come from and what we spend money on) and (as you might expect) do not like the direction of their analysis.

Question 10 — Are there any ways to generate revenues other than raising taxes? — on page 14, is answered in a predictably Research Bureau way:

a) Lower the business tax rate.

b) “Worcester should divest itself of noncore assets, such as Union Station, Hope Cemetery, Worcester Memorial Auditorium, the DCU Center, and the Worcester Senior Center. Cumulatively, these facilities, which are owned and (except the DCU) operated and maintained by the City, cost taxpayers about $2 million in annual subsidies.” 

c) “Raising student achievement in the Worcester Public Schools…”

d) “maintenance of public infrastructure and continued success in making Worcester a safe community with a relatively low crime rate.”

Regarding item (b), one can only wonder who would buy Union Station or the Memorial Auditorium, especially since the state was only able to find one bidder for the old courthouse.  It’s one thing to say “the city should”; it’s another, very different, much more important thing to explain how exactly the city can sell those properties in a way that would be beneficial to the city at large, ensure historical preservation, and make us money.

Item (b) is one of the reasons I (and other citizens) have serious issues with the Research Bureau.  It states the obvious (“we need to dump the white elephants”) without doing the real tough work of telling someone how to achieve the (near-impossible) task of divesting the city of the white elephants.

It is also, of course, of concern that an institution like the senior center is lumped in as a nice-to-have that we could sell to a for-profit — and then not have to worry about the old folk ever again.  The Research Bureau consistently fails to understand any of the reasons people want to live in a city, and the things that make a city livable.  Do we really want to live in a city that provides no activities or meeting place for seniors?

One can only wonder how one can achieve (c) and (d) without also breaking one of the major tenets of the Research Bureau — that is, cutting spending and paying people the absolute lowest you possibly can.  Spitting out three sentences about improving schools and making the city a safe place to be when you’ve previously said that you’re not too concerned about a decrease in uniformed police presence.   To wit, on page 7:

Spending cuts could have future, presently unknown consequences. The layoffs and recent operational volatility could lead to a general lack of preparedness for any emergency that may arise.

Or, to put it another way, “We’re mildly concerned that there might be fewer cops on the streets, but not concerned enough that we’d actually advocate spending money (!!!) to employ them.”

Similarly, you cannot put out an annual report with the theme of “regional transportation” and fail to note the irony in the following statement:

As noted in the text that follows, making the greater Worcester region an attractive place to live and work cannot be all about cutting expenditures. The Research Bureau also promotes policies to expand our tax base to give us the capacity to improve services, and hence, the quality of life. Increasing commuter rail, expanding freight rail and airport service, improving public transportation and access to highways all provide opportunities to attract people and businesses to the region.

One can only wonder how cutting expenditures will increase commuter rail and improve public transportation.  In the world of the Research Bureau, businesses should spend money to make money, but city government is in some parallel universe where cutting spending will somehow build bridges, cause more trains and buses to run, and make all our students overachievers.

I can get a more informed debate from 140 character tweets and I can get more “accuracy and insight” from a Scott Wolfe letter to the editor.

Worcester deserves better than an organizaton that only scratches surfaces and has no clue about urban livability.