Thursday, May 3, 2012

Joel Miller Just Can't Get Fairview Facts Straight

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Try as he might, New York State Assemblyman Joel Miller just can't get his facts right regarding the Fairview Fire District. On his first try, in a Poughkeepsie Journal Valley Views article on April 22, 2012, he wrote
Fairview alone had fire district tax rates nearly 10 times higher than 27 other towns in Dutchess County in 2010.
I pointed out in Joel Miller's Flawed Legislation for Fire District Budget Empowerment that there are only 20 towns in Dutchess County, and that even if he meant “fire districts” instead of “towns” (which would have made more sense), his statement is still not even close to correct.

Flawed Staff Work

In preparation for that blog post, I spoke with the staffer for Miller who had generated this misstatement. This staffer had already reviewed some of my own reports, including The Big Three Fire Districts of Dutchess County. It became clear to me that this staffer was not well prepared to interpret quantitative information, and the staffer readily conceded as much. My instinct was that if Miller were to release a corrected statement, it might also be wrong. Because I genuinely wanted facts to be correctly stated, I suggested a corrected statement, and I offered to preview any proposed new statement about Fairview. I never heard from Miller or any of his staffers about this matter.

My instinct turned out to be correct. On April 26, Miller sent a press release to each Fairview Fire Commissioner. This press release was essentially a rewording of his Valley Views article, except that the incorrect statement about Fairview was replaced by a new incorrect statement about Fairview:
Fairview alone had fire district tax rates nearly eight times higher than 30 other fire districts in Dutchess County in 2010.
The irony is that the above statement appears to be a mis-quote of a statement in my own report, which reads
Fairview’s tax rate is nearly eight times the average of the non-big-three districts.
Apparently the staffer thought the word “average” in my statement didn't really mean anything important, and could just be omitted! But as most European high school students know, an average of a bunch of numbers must be smaller than some of the numbers being averaged. In fact, for ordinary data like tax rates, roughly half the numbers can be expected to be greater than the average. Maybe even much greater.

And so it is in this case. Half the non-big-three fire districts had tax rates greater than the average of the non-big-three, and half had tax rates less than the average. So Fairview's tax rate was eight times higher than only 14 other fire districts — not 30 other fire districts.

Incidentally, “30 other fire districts” in Miller's statement is wrong too. There were only 30 fire districts in the whole analysis, and the big three fire districts were excluded from this average, so there could only be 27 non-big-three districts. The (weighted) average of these 27 was greater than 14 of these districts, and smaller than 13 of these districts, as one would expect. For five of these districts, Fairview was only about four times higher — not 8 times higher as Miller claimed.

Miller Has Been Ambivalent About Accuracy

This post isn't about flawed staff work. The principal is responsible for the work of his staff. If Miller had any doubt whether his staff could handle the fire tax rate issue, the doubt was resolved the first time the mistake was made. At that point, Miller knew — or should have known — that his staff didn't know what they were doing on this issue, and so were unlikely to make a proper correction on their own. Miller could have arranged for an independent review of his proposed “correction” before it was released. (I would have been glad to accommodate.)

But this post isn't just about fire taxes either. Joel Miller represents 6 of Dutchess County's 20 towns in the New York State Assembly. Yet he allowed himself to write “27 other towns in Dutchess County,” a gaffe that he or any member of his staff could easily have corrected without knowing anything about fire tax rates.

Taken together, these mistakes show Miller to have been ambivalent about the accuracy of his factual statements. Such lapses affect his credibility.

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