Data in action: How much would you pay for a pound of dirt?

Seattle's unconventional approach to measuring the effectiveness of its street sweeping program.

Jun 9, 2015 | BLOG POST

By Gerald Young, Senior Management Associate, ICMA

When measuring performance, there’s a tendency to think in terms of statistics that are already part of your annual budget or some other regular report to elected officials:

  • Percentage of crimes cleared
  • Library circulation per capita
  • Park maintenance expenditures per acre.

But while there’s a clear place for such measures in your dashboard, a performance focus might also lead you to some unexpected places. In Seattle, it led to assessing the price of dirt.

More specifically, the city has been assessing the effectiveness of its street sweeping program at collecting fine particulates, heavy metals, and other contaminants from the streets.  Sweeping can often be viewed as a matter of aesthetics, but where stream quality, salmon habitat, and NPDES regulations are involved, it can also be of great proactive value.

In this case, city staff measured the tonnage of materials collected, the expenditures for the program, and the comparable expenditures for other stormwater and watershed management initiatives. Their assessment?  By sweeping, they pay approximately $4.80 per pound of material collected. For other projects intended to detain stormwater overflows or dredge those ponds, the average cost is between $8 and $53 per pound. Given those differences, the city is doubling its efforts to collect contaminants while they’re still on the street surface.

Local governments face complex decisions on a range of service and infrastructure options, and that will seldom be reducible to a single cost comparison. Still, if you’re trying to explain those decisions to local residents, you’d certainly be better off having those figures at your disposal.

The Seattle example was reported by Bill Lucia in the Route Fifty digital news publication.

What’s your pound of dirt? Every jurisdiction has a hot-button issue.  It could be replacing an out-of-date animal shelter, deciding whether to keep, contract, or sell a municipal golf course, or answering questions about excessive overtime.  Backing up the arguments, proposals, and long-term studies should be the performance data that show how you’re doing now, what the last several years’ experience has been, how your peer jurisdictions have been doing, and even where you predict your performance to be in the future.


ICMA Blog


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