Thursday, December 31, 2009

Apology to Poughkeepsie Journal

I’ve written three blog posts this month critical of Poughkeepsie Journal reporter Jenny Lee-Adrian's coverage of the 2010 Dutchess County budget.  These three posts were in response to Lee-Adrian’s stories of December 10, 11, and 17.  The last of my three posts, Poughkeepsie Journal's Fuzzy Math, accused Lee-Adrian of imprecise arithmetic resulting in the publication of inaccurate tax rate increases.  It turns out that the math in the December 17 story was not fuzzy, and the numbers in the December 17 story are accurate after all.  I'm truly sorry to have mistakenly accused the Journal and Lee-Adrian of these errors.

How Did My Mistake Happen?

Short answer:  Faulty assumptions and failure to check them; a chance editorial simplification.
Long answer:  Keep reading.

December 10 Story

The first of my three posts, County Legislature Increases Tax Rate 14.3 Percent, criticized Lee-Adrian’s December 10 story because it didn’t mention tax rates or tax rate increases at all.  This post was very similar to half a dozen earlier posts I'd written on other local government jurisdictions, advocating for prominent coverage of tax rate increases by the Poughkeepsie Journal

December 11 Story

Lee-Adrian’s December 11 story included tax rates and the tax rate increase for the December 8 amendments by the Dutchess County Legislature.  The second of my three posts, Poughkeepsie Journal Gets It Almost Right, criticized this story because the included 14.6 percent tax rate increase was inaccurate.  Lee-Adrian had used rounded tax rates for her calculation of the tax rate increase, thus introducing errors.  In my conversation with Lee-Adrian before writing my second post, I suggested that she should use high precision tax data for her rate calculations, and to only round off for presentation, in order to avoid inaccuracies.  My suggestion was not accepted, and our conversation ended awkwardly.

Authoritative Source for Tax Levy

It’s worth noting that Lee-Adrian and I had both obtained the tax levy related to the legislative amendments from the same source:  Fred Knapp, assistant to Legislative Chairman Roger Higgins. Knapp is keeper of the numbers for the Legislature, according to Higgins.  In other words, our source for the tax levy was the key staff person designated by the Legislative Chairman as maintaining the tax data for the legislative branch of Dutchess County Government.  Since the tax levy pertains to the legislative amendments, for which the legislature is presumably the final arbiter, I assumed that the County Legislature is the most authoritative official source for the tax levy resulting from the legislative amendments.

My assumption was faulty.  The budget office in the executive branch of county government is much better equipped than the legislature to account for the detailed implications of legislative amendments to the budget.  It turns out the tax levy increase given to me by Knapp, though expressed to the exact dollar, was actually inaccurate by about $400,000, or 5 percent.  This fact comes into play in act three.

December 17 Story

Lee-Adrian’s December 17 story included tax levy and the tax rate increase for the December 8 legislative amendments, just as did the December 11 story, but there were some obvious differences in the numbers.  While the December 11 story stated the tax rate increase as being 14.6 percent, the December 17 story stated that the increase was 13.9 percent.  While the December 11 story gave the tax levy as “$103.4 million”, the December 17 story gave the tax levy as “103 million”.

My Incorrect Assumptions

Upon reviewing the December 17 story before writing the third of my three posts, Poughkeepsie Journal's Fuzzy Math, I assumed that Lee-Adrian was continuing to use rounded arithmetic on the same tax levy we’d both obtained from Knapp.  All the numbers in her December 17 story seemed consistent with these assumptions.  For example, I assumed that the “$103 million” tax levy was just Knapp’s $103,412,049 rounded to three significant figures.

My assumptions were wrong, despite the fact that they yielded a self-consistent explanation of Lee-Adrian’s December 17 story.  Lee-Adrian was no longer using the tax levy of $103,412,049 with which we’d both started, but a more authoritative tax levy of $102,996,772 provided by the budget office a few days earlier.  She also used high precision arithmetic on this new data.

The new tax levy displayed to four significant figures would have been “$103.0 million”.  If it had been displayed this way, I would have seen right away that she was using a different tax levy than the “$103.4 million” of her previous story.  This would have completely changed my understanding of what Lee-Adrian was doing.  It wasn’t until Lee-Adrian published a follow-up story on December 19 with the exact tax levy that I learned of my mistaken assumptions.  But it’s understandable that “$103.0 million” could have been edited to read “$103 million”.  The chance for such an editorial simplification arises only once in ten times.

Lessons Learned
  1. I should have attempted to check my assumptions with Lee-Adrian before posting my incorrect analysis of her December 17 story.  I should not have allowed my discomfort with our earlier conversation to govern my decision to bypass this important step.
  2. The budget office is a more authoritative source for county tax levy information than the county legislature.

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