Our tax dollars at work: Who's doing the best job?

Think about how carefully your town spends your money.

Maybe you haven’t a clue. Maybe you harbor hunches. Definitely, you should know.

The Kansas City Star crunched the numbers — from Lawrence to Lee’s Summit, plus the big city itself. We found hidden truths and plenty of surprises about the art of government efficiency.

When fighting crime, for example, lots of land can be an efficiency killer, laying tax dollars to waste. But when keeping up parks or hauling trash, the opposite may rule: Bigger territories tend to be better.

And — here’s a shocker — Kansas City’s street department may not be as bad as everyone thinks.

Those are some of The Star’s findings from a computer analysis thought to be the first of its kind conducted by a news organization. The research method, called Data Envelopment Analysis, weighs basic information about what local governments put into a service and what residents get out of it.

We’re rating efficiency. Productivity. Bang for the buck.

The Star spent months gathering budget and performance numbers — some 1,200 “data points” — to grade eight services in 18 cities with 20,000 or more people.

The analysis was aided by a consultant and produced overall “winners” and “losers.” They will be revealed Wednesday, the last day of this series.

Today, we show how the cities stack up in public safety.

Experts caution The Star’s study isn’t perfect. It deals in hard numbers; a child saved from a burning house can’t be conveyed in decimal points. Still, comparing firefighting budgets and staff to annual fire losses can offer clues to how wisely cities use tax dollars.

“I hope this work will become the first of many in a movement to make cities across the country more accountable for the use of tax dollars in public services,” said James Nolan, an economics professor and The Star’s consultant for this series. “The results show us objectively where both efficiency and waste occur in public services across the Kansas City region.”

That’s important to know, say good-government sages. But the newspaper found most cities aren’t doing well scoring themselves or even keeping key data, much less weighing it all against nearby peers.

Citing the goals of better service, greater accountability and higher citizen trust, Kansas City Auditor Mark Funkhouser says: “We ought to be able to tell the public what they’re getting for their money.”

This series aims for that.

Who’s best?

Four cities tied in police services:

Belton, Grandview, Liberty and Prairie Village

Three cities tied in fire and fire-and-ambulance services:

Belton, Gladstone and Liberty

Four cities tied in municipal court services:

Gladstone, Lawrence, Lenexa and Shawnee

City Services: Who's doing the best job?