The Transparency Project: Capital Improvement — An Introduction

28 Apr

As part of its Transparency Project, Mode Shift has been studying the City of Omaha’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) for over a year.

Basics of the CIP

Let’s look at the CIP’s goals, as described in the CIP itself.

The Capital Improvement Program should provide the “fiscal status and the physical progress” of the City’s projects in Transportation,  Environment, Parks and Recreation, Public Safety, and Public Facilities.

For each project, the CIP is to include:

  • A description, the total cost, and any change in status
  • Amount of City funds spent the previous year
  • Amount of funds appropriated for the current year
  • Amount of funds budgeted for the next six years

The funds are broken down by source: City funds (mainly Street Bonds for transportation projects), federal funds, and other local funds.

Projects are to be ranked to ensure they align with the City master plans. Project lists are to be compiled by various task forces, examined for conformity with the master plan, reviewed by the Mayor’s CIP Priority Committee, and matched with the budget.

Updated annually, the CIP is approved by the City Council in August and is to be published shortly after.

That’s the theory.

Studying the CIP Is Fun

Our transparency team looked at a lot of details, not just the numbers inside the most recent CIP, but also the numbers in the previous 8 CIPs. We studied the process for generating the CIP. This involved visits to City Council, City planners, the mayor’s office, City finance, and MAPA (the agency that coordinates the disbursements of federal funds).

As you can imagine, the resulting material is pretty dry. It is doubtful that the words “Fun” and “CIP” were ever grouped together, but that’s what we will do with the five blogs will follow the steps on Mode Shift’s CIP board game, our fun look at serious issues:

Click on the thumbnail above for a view of the Mode Shift CIP Game Board. 
Objective: A Better City

Here is a preview of the 5 blogs:

Blog 1 – What’s Inside the CIP? We compare what should be in the CIP with what is actually there, and note these shortcomings:

  • The totals don’t add up
  • The narratives are not updated
  • Expenditures are missing; appropriations are unreliable

Blog 2 – Who funds the transportation projects? We look at the source of funds and note several issues or questions:

  • Unlikely doubling of City funds in 2020. Murky source of financing of City funds.
  • The use of federal funds plummets 90% by 2020, yet MAPA sees no similar drop.
  • By 2020, 100% of federal funds go to automobile capacity, yet MAPA sees funds available for other modes.
  • Some local funds are not secured, so we don’t know if a project is realistic or just a notion.

Blog 3 – What can we learn from the past? Only 30% of the past cost is available, but based on that 30%, we can say that:

  • Capital budget: Over a quarter of the projects will be dropped and replaced with others. Overall, the projects will be 12% over budget.
  • Appropriations: There is a wild swing between appropriations and cost, with several projects built without any appropriations, others well over budget.

We can expect that projects will be delayed, cancelled and added during the year, but these changes should be reported, appropriations should be adjusted, and past cost overruns explained.

Blog 4 – What are the CIP projects? Where are they? The Mode Shift Map of Projects will be analyzed and a view of projects by city sector will be added.

Blog 5 – Who selects the projects? How are citizens engaged in the process? The CIP and City charter outline a formal ranking process to ensure that the projects are in line with master plans. Mode Shift found that the transportation master plan is ignored and found no evidence that project rankings are taking place. The mayor’s office selects the projects, and the reasons for selection are not public.

The issues listed above are not new. Although some of them (missing expenditures, narratives not updated) surfaced in the past two years, the main issues (lack of transparency, lack of project ranking and citizen engagement) date back to 2008, or even before. The CIPs prior to 2008 are not available to us, but we assume they are no different.

Fortunately, all of these issues can be fixed. Join us for the five next blogs from our Transparency Project, as we explain the CIP and its shortcomings, and make suggestions for fixing the CIP for a better city.

Full Transparency Project:
Part 1 – Capital Improvement Program, What’s Inside?
Part 2 – What Is the Fund Source?
Part 3 – What Does the Past Cost Tell Us?
Part 4 – What Are the CIP Projects?
Part 5 – Who Selects the CIP Projects?

4 Responses to “The Transparency Project: Capital Improvement — An Introduction”

  1. Terry Hickman April 28, 2017 at 12:33 pm #

    You folks are doing great work here! Thank you!

  2. tobin ehlers April 29, 2017 at 7:29 am #

    The board game is great, artistically beautiful and sarcastically hilarious. I have listened to Lee address this topic before and look forward to next 5 blogs to keep me informed.

    • modeshiftomaha April 29, 2017 at 7:37 am #

      Thanks Tobin! Kudos also goes to Chris Behr for his artistic and writing (and many other) talents.

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