Thursday, December 17, 2009

Poughkeepsie Journal's Fuzzy Math

The criticisms of the Poughkeepsie Journal and of reporter Jenny Lee-Adrian in this post are incorrect, and are hereby retracted.  For details, see Apology to Poughkeepsie Journal.

Be careful what you wish for. 

These words came to mind when I read today's front page story by Jenny Lee-Adrian in the Poughkeepsie Journal, “Steinhaus, Legislature plans differ on tax rates” (Online headline differs from print edition.)  There it is, right on the front page!  Everything I've been advocating for!  Tax rates in the headline.  Tax rate increase in the lead sentence.  And tax rates even in the caption of a photo of Dutchess County Executive William Steinhaus, the caption informing readers that property tax would increase even under his original budget.  Best of all, the print edition includes a large table comparing the Legislature's amended budget with the result of recent Steinhaus vetoes. The column titles feature the tax rate increases in huge typefont, so they can't be missed, even by the casual reader.  You can hardly pick up the paper without seeing “13.9%” and “9.2%”.

This is just what I've been advocating for many months now in this blog (and in direct communications with Poughkeepsie Journal reporters).  The tax rate and the tax rate increase is the story, and I'm very glad that the Poughkeepsie Journal finally gets it.

Lee-Adrian's Calculations Are Inaccurate — Again

I wish I could stop here, with congratulations to the Poughkeepsie Journal, and drinks all around.  Unfortunately, the story is marred by inaccurate tax rate calculations by the Poughkeepsie Journal.  When I advocated for reporting on tax rate increases, it never occurred to me to say, “And by the way, when you publish those tax rate increases, consider publishing accurate ones.”  But I guess I should have.

Actually, I did.  I had a long telephone conversation on December 14 with Lee-Adrian regarding her December 11 story containing an amended county tax rate increase of 14.6 percent.  This rate increase is inaccurate because she used rounded tax rates.  I encouraged Lee-Adrian to use high precision tax data for her rate calculations, and to only round off for presentation, in order to avoid inaccuracies.  My recent post Poughkeepsie Journal Gets It Almost Right documents my analysis in more detail.

For today's story, Lee-Adrian apparently decided to recalculate the amended tax information already published.  This time, instead of using rounded tax rates, she used a rounded tax levy of $103,000,000, instead of the actual value of $103,412,049.  This made matters worse than before.

The thing is, when you start your calculation with rounded values, you introduce an error proportional to the difference between the rounded value and the unrounded value.  In this particular case, the rounded tax levy is nearly half a percent different from the exact value, thus introducing considerable inaccuracy.  Lee-Adrian's calculations using the rounded tax levy resulted in the following inaccuracies, all of which appear in today's story:
  1. “The Legislature budget's property tax levy would increase 8.9 percent.”  The correct value is 9.3 percent.
  2. “Under that budget, the property tax rate could increase 13.9 percent in 2010 ...”  The correct value is 14.3 percent, as I stated in this blog a week ago.
  3. “... to $2.89 per $1,000 of assessed value.”  The correct value is $2.91.  Lee-Adrian had already published this correct value in her December 11 story.  Why did she think she should change it?
Today's Story Gets Some Tax Information Right — By Accident

Today's story also contains corresponding tax information regarding the effect of the Steinhaus vetoes, culminating in the statement that “the property tax rate could increase 9.2 percent”.  Are all these numbers inaccurate also?  No.  Although Lee-Adrian presumably used the rounded tax levy of $98.8 million, it just so happens that the rounded tax levy differs from the true tax levy in this case by less than one part in ten thousand.  This good luck allows all the published results regarding the Steinhaus vetoes to be correct.

Who Is Responsible For the Calculated Tax Information?

The December 11 story stated that the (inaccurate) 14.6 percent tax rate increase was provided by the Legislative staff, but Lee-Adrian confirmed to me that she calculated it herself.  Today's story states the following:
The Journal calculated the 2010 property-tax rates for the Legislature budget and a budget with vetoes based on numbers Steinhaus released Tuesday. Legislature staff confirmed the 2010 tax rates were correct. The County Executive's Office did not respond.
I spoke today with Fred Knapp, assistant to Legislative Chairman Roger Higgins.  My understanding of our conversation is that Knapp had indeed spoken with Lee-Adrian about these tax numbers, but that he did not confirm the correctness of her calculations.  Knapp seemed to be well aware of the necessity of preserving precision in tax rate calculations, and he graciously provided me with the exact tax levy changes needed to perform the high-precision calculations.

Credibility Gap

It hardly needs saying that the credibility of the Poughkeepsie Journal suffers if it publishes two different tax rate increases (14.6 percent and 13.9 percent) for the same amended budget, and both numbers are wrong.  This is especially true since it just isn't that hard to get it right.  I'm extremely pleased to see that the Poughkeepsie Journal has finally published the County tax rate increase information.  But is it too much to ask that they publish the correct numbers?


  1. A front-page follow-up story on County taxes by Jenny Lee-Adrian appeared today. Unfortunately, this story repeats word-for-word the inaccurate tax information of yesterday’s story. An additional disappointment: After I emailed Lee-Adrian a link to this post, she responded to the effect that she would not welcome speaking with me again about county tax rates.

  2. Join the crowd Bill - there are many who don't welcome speaking with me either in regard to other matters. Not to Worry - this is a sign of the times we live in! It's no wonder there isn't a political public media campaign to destroy all magnifying glasses and microscopes.

  3. Yet another front-page story on County taxes by Jenny Lee-Adrian appeared today. The story’s second paragraph mentions the fact that veto overrides will mean “a larger budget and a higher tax levy and tax rate.” I heartily commend Lee-Adrian for continuing to place the tax rate and the change in the tax rate front and center where they belong, even when numbers aren’t yet available.

    In the last few paragraphs of this lengthy story, Lee-Adrian repeats – for the third day in a row – the same tax information for the Legislature’s December 8 amended budget which I criticized as inaccurate. But this time, she added two important new pieces of information, stating that the December 8 amendments yield “a property-tax levy of $102,996,772, according to Steinhaus' office.” Most interesting! I’m guessing that Lee-Adrian actually used high-precision calculations after all, but starting with a different tax levy than I did. Once again, I heartily commend Lee-Adrian for “getting it” about the proper way to perform the arithmetic for tax rate calculations.

    The second new information, “according to Steinhaus’ office” is at variance with statements in her earlier articles that the tax data was from “the Legislative staff”. The tax levy I used, $103,412,049 was from the Legislature (Fred Knapp). It’s interesting that Steinhaus and the Legislature disagree on what the tax levy is for the Legislature’s amendments, and ironic that the Steinhaus figure is $415,277 LOWER than the Legislature’s figure.


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