Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Archive for July, 2010

User Guide: Seattle Police Department Crime Mapping Tool

by July 29th, 2010

BACKGROUND, AND KEY LINK: Hoping to make crime information more accessible and timely, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) began publishing police reports for robberies, burglaries, aggravated assaults and homicides online here earlier in 2010. In June, SPD supplemented this effort with a customizable online mapping tool depicting crime in the Seattle area. The SPD crime mapping site details recent incidents including crimes against persons, drugs, vice and property crime for different neighborhoods and time frames. The SPD strives to post crimes 12 hours after they occur.

Crimes are depicted on the interactive map as categorized icons, and upon selection display details of the incident and a link to the police report. To access the police report, users are asked to register an e-mail and password and agree to the terms and conditions. The SPD has stated that not all crimes are reported, as is the case for some Type II crimes and crimes where there is need to be sensitive to the identity of victims and officers.

Two years in development, the SPD crime map is a step forward for police department transparency and civic awareness. From monitoring neighborhood criminal activity to making real estate decisions, the map can be a valuable tool for citizens. Below follows a brief guide to the map and its features.

Public Data Ferret On KOMO 1000: Oversight Of Federal Resource Lands Lax, Says Watchdog Agency

by July 28th, 2010

Today on my regular weekly segment with “Nine2Noon” co-anchors Brian Calvert and Nancy Barrick on Seattle’s KOMO-AM 1000 highlighting the work of our Public Data Ferret project, we talked about testimony delivered recently by a government watchdog agency that the U.S. Department of the Interior has been lax in managing federal resource lands leased to energy companies for oil and natural gas production. Here’s the audio of today’s radio segment, and here’s my original Ferret write-up of the testimony. The radio transcript follows.

Brian Calvert: “As crews continue to cap spills and clean up oil along the Gulf Coast, Congress is being reminded of major reforms that are long overdue. Matt Rosenberg, with, joins us. Matt, in testimony last week, Congress actually heard some specifics from the Government Accountability Office. Let’s talk about these specifics. The Government Accountability Office was pretty critical when it came to the fact that regular environmental inspections aren’t performed.”

Matt Rosenberg: “They were indeed, Brian, and the Government Accountability Office is kind of the conscience of Congress and the nation and they’ve issued 27 reports since 2004 with suggestions (on oil and gas lease regulation) and last week they reminded a House committee of what needs to be done. For one thing, the rates that are charged are too low, on the royalties paid by private companies that lease federal lands to produce natural gas and oil. Also, late payments go undetected. GAO pointed out the Department of Interior is the oversight agency here, and their IT system can’t even tell if the lease payments are coming in late. The environmental oversight is poor. Inspections too often just haven’t been done for onshore oil and gas leases, partly because department staff at Interior were too busy processing drilling permits. On top of that, the metering equiment is not checked, so they can’t really tell if the lease payments being made are for the right amount. And then, this is the one that really got me, guys. There’s a fudge factor. The current law allows the leaseholders to independently change their previously entered data on production levels and royalties owed. So in essence they can fudge the figures if they want. It’s just a real head-scratcher.”

U.S. Government Accountability Office: Federal Oil and Gas Lease Oversight Needs Sweeping Fixes

by July 27th, 2010

BACKGROUND: The Gulf oil spill has refocused attention on the role of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s oversight of activity by companies which lease federally-regulated properties to drill for oil off-shore, or for oil or natural gas onshore. Interior’s Bureau of Land Management oversees onshore oil and gas leases onshore, while until now a division of department’s Minerals Management Service regulated offshore oil leases. A newly-created branch of Interior will now oversee offshore leases, but old and serious problems remain with the entire oversight program, according to the General Accountability Office, which serves an investigative and oversight function for Congress. In testimony last week to a U.S. House committee, GAO’s natural resources and environment policy chief sought to remind legislators of what more than five years of GAO recommendations indicate, about needed reforms yet to be implemented.

KEY LINK: “Oil And Gas Management: Past Work Offers Insights To Consider In Restructuring Interior’s Oversight,” testimony to the U.S. House Committee On Oversight And Government Reform by Frank Russo, Director, Natural Resources and Environment division, Government Accountability Office, 7/22/10


  • “Effective management and oversight of our nation’s oil and gas resources is critical” for reasons of worker safety, economic stability and environmental protection. “Additionally, ensuring royalties are accurately paid on oil and gas production is increasingly important as our country faces serious fiscal challenges.”
  • In Fiscal year 2009, Interior collected more than $9 billion in royalties, rents and purchase bids for oil and gas production on federal lands and in federally-controlled waters.
  • Oil and gas production on federally-overseen U.S. lands has increased overall in the last two decades but Interior’s oversight has too often been insufficient.
  • Environmental inspections have not been consistently performed for onshore oil and gas leases, in part because department staff were too busy processing drilling permits.
  • Statutory and agency requirements to inspect onshore and offshore lease sites and metering equipment to measure oil and gas production levels are too often not being met, so independent verification of amounts produced and accuracy of lease payments is not available.
  • Current law allows leaseholders to independently adjust their previously entered data on production levels and royalties owed. As well, the information technology (IT) system used to assist in oversight of offshore oil leases has lacked capability to detect when leaseholders fail to report their royalties owed, on time.
  • A long-standing Interior effort to implement improved IT systems for verification of leaseholder production levels was found to be “years from adoption.”
  • Interior has had significant problems hiring, training and keeping petroleum engineers and inspectors whose job it is to verify how much oil and gas is being produced from federal leases. Private industry pays more, turnover is high, and continuing education and certification is weak.
  • U.S. lease rates for development of oil and gas on federal lands are too low. “The U.S. government receives one of the lowest shares of revenue for oil and gas resources compared with other countries and resource owners….Interior has not systematically re-examined how the U.S. government is compensated for extraction of oil and gas for over 25 years.”
  • As Interior embarks on a new effort to reform and improve its oversight of federal resource lands, it should keep these recommended improvements in procedures and operations at top of mind, and ensure they are implemented in a timely manner.

Public Data Ferret On KOMO 1000: Seattle City Employees Retirement Plan $1 Billion In The Hole

by July 21st, 2010

Today during my regular weekly segment on KOMO 1000 Seattle’s “Nine2Noon” show with co-anchors Brian Calvert and Nancy Barrick, I talked about the latest featured item for our Public Data Ferret project. Here’s the original Ferret write-up on fiscal challenges facing the Seattle City Employees Retirement System, and here’s the audio of the segment. A transcript follows.

Brian Calvert: “What if the retirement plan you were counting on, ends up going broke? Matt Rosenberg of – where you can use their feature The Public Data Ferret – joins us. Matt, you recently looked at a report on the Seattle City Employees Retirement System. According to the study, that plan has a billion (dollars) more in liabilities than its current market value….It sounds like pretty bad news.”

Matt Rosenberg: “Well, it is. The value of the funds always fluctuates because of the nature of the investments, but you kind of have to plan for that, and it appears that due diligence has gone somewhat missing, unfortunately. The liabilities – the amount that will have to be paid out over the next 30 years – have…doubled since 1999 and assets have grown, but not nearly as much, partly because of the economy and the stock market. The city and employees pay in, but there’s going to have to be a big rate hike. The report says the city is going to have to pay most of it because of contracts that cap the added amount of employee contributions.”

Nancy Barrick: “And from what I’ve heard, it’s not just the city facing this problem. We’re looking at it at the county level, also the state level.”

Matt Rosenberg: “Ah, it’s a problem that exists widely. (King) County employees are part of the state pension system, which is doing okay but could be doing better, according to a recent report. There are real issues here, and part of it is limiting future liabilities and getting under the hood. Part of the problem with the city plan, Nancy, is that employees are guaranteed a 7.75 percent annual rate of return and their share of increases, if any are needed, is strictly capped. So, you know, one guy down in California who’s attacking this issue says that it’s kind of like going to Las Vegas with your brother-in-law’s paycheck, when governments guarantee a high rate of return. We don’t get that, necessarily, in the private sector. And so in the future, maybe we need to see new employees not having their retirement funds planned by the city, but doing it on their own, while they (the city) still meet obligations to current employees (and retirees).”

Nancy Barrick: “Alright. Interesting topic. Matt Rosenberg of, and you can check them out, with the Public Data Ferret.”

City Of Seattle Report: Employee Pension System Underfunded By $1 Billion; Major Rate Hike Eyed

by July 18th, 2010

SUMMARY: According to a report released this month, the Seattle City Employees Retirement System (SCERS) pension plan has $1 billion more in actuarial liabilities than current market value. The plan is only 62 percent funded, as of January 1, 2010. Liabilities have doubled since 1999. Assets have also grown, but not as sharply; and declined markedly since 2008 due to poor performance of the fund’s domestic and international stocks, and its investments in real estate, venture and alternative capital, and mezzanine debt. The city and employees each pay 8.03 percent of compensation annually into the pension plan, but to fund ongoing benefits and meet liabilities amortized over the next 30 years, overall contributions will have to rise another 8.97 to 9.53 percent, with the employee share of that increase currently capped at 2 percent. The pension fund’s liabilities are shaped in part by an assumption that beneficiaries are to receive a 7.75 percent annual return on investment, and a 1.5 percent annual cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA). Fund planning also includes assumed annual average salary increase of 4 percent for city employees. Another influencing factor cited is longer life expectancies of beneficiaries.

BACKGROUND: SCERS is a pension trust fund for city employees other than police and fire personnel, who are covered under a state plan. There are 5,304 retirees currently getting SCERS benefits; plus 9,071 active system members, most or nearly all of whom will receive future benefits; and another 2,006 terminated workers who will get benefits. Employees and the city each contribute to the plan at a rate of 8.03 percent. The city and employees each contributed $46.6 million to the plan in 2009, up from $40 million each in 2008. The average monthly benefit paid to current retirees and beneficiairies is $1,712. The system covers retirement, death and disability benefits.


1) “Seattle City Employees Retirement System Actuarial Valuation As of January 1, 2010,” July 1, 2010 (“full report”);

2) “Retirement System Overview & Actuarial Valuation Report Review,” presented to City Council’s Finance & Budget committee, July 9, 2010 (“summary report”).


  • SCERS has unfunded actuarial liabilities of $1.008 billion as of January 1, 2010, according to the report dated July 1, 2010. This is four times the previous highest amount of unfunded liabilities since 1984 (p. 21, full report). Liabilities are $2.653 billion, assets are $1.645 billion. The system’s funding ratio is 62 percent, lower than any percent shown in previous years listed.
  • The fund’s liabilities have doubled from $1.3 billion in 1999 to $2.6 billion in 2010. meanwhile, the fund’s assets were also growing, from $1.375 billion in 1999 to $2.1 billion in 2008, then down to $1.6 billion in 2010. (p. 21, full report).
  • By one estimate from the city’s consultants, contributions to the fund would by January 1, 2011 need to be raised 8.97 percent to fund ongoing benefits amortize unfunded liabilities over 30 years. The added employee contribution is currently capped at 2 percent, so the city would have to pay 6.97 percent more for the employee pension plan, on top of the 8.03 percent of wages which it already contributes. (p. 1, summary report, & p 1., full report).
  • Another scenario outlined by the city’s consultants begins the rate hike at the same time but somewhat less steeply at first, so that by January 1, 2014 (and continuing until 2041), employees are contributing to the pension fund an additional two percent annually (on top of their current 8.03 percent) and the city contributes an additional 7.53 percent (on top of its current 8.03 percent). (p. 32, full report).
  • The city pension fund’s obligations to beneficiaries includes several assumptions which drive planning. One is that the return on investment shall be 7.75 percent, net of investment expenses. (p. 29, full report). Another assumption is of a four percent annual increase in general wages. (p. A-2, full report). Additionally, there is a 1.5 percent annual cost-of-living increase in post-retirement benefits (p. A-3, full report).
  • The value of SCERS assets declined 24 percent between January 1, 2008 and January 1, 2010. The fund’s holdings in U.S. government and corporate bonds actually gained value during that period, but these gains were more than offset by marked losses in the value of the fund’s investments in domestic and international stocks, real estate, venture and alternative capital, and mezzanine debt. (p. 10, full report).


Seattle City Employees Retirement System

City of Seattle Collective Bargaining Agreements

On The Growing Movement for Pension Reform,” John Diaz, San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Page Editor, 7/11/10

The Trillion Dollar Gap: Underfunded State Retirement Systems And The Roads To Reform,” The Pew Center On The States, 2/10. Washington state fact sheet from Pew study

Public Data Ferret’s Seattle+Management archive

Public Data Ferret is a news knowledge base program of the 501c3 public charity, Public Eye Northwest. Ferret In The News. Donate; subscribe (free)/volunteer.

Public Data Ferret On KOMO 1000: Regulating The Display Of Human Remains In Seattle

by July 14th, 2010

This morning in my regular weekly segment on KOMO 1000 featuring the work of our Public Data Ferret project, I discussed with “Nine2Noon” co-anchors Brian Calvert and Nancy Barrick the new bill introduced today in a Seattle City Council Committee to regulate the display of human remains. Here the original Ferret write-up, and here’s today’s audio segment. The transcript follows.

Brian Calvert: “Remember The ‘Bodies’ exhibit? It’s come to Seattle twice, but a new law could prevent its return. Matt Rosenberg of joins us – that’s where you can use their feature The Public Data Ferret. And Matt, today the Ferret found a meeting note; today the City Council will talk about banning the ‘Bodies’ exhibit unless it conforms to some new rules. What exactly is the Council looking for here?”

Matt Rosenberg: “Well, we came across the actual bill online at the committee’s Web site, and they would like to make sure, basically, there is permission granted in advance by the deceased before they die and are displayed in a commercial exhibit like “Bodies,” or from their next of kin.”

Brian Calvert: “That’s part of the controversy with the exhibit because as the exhibit has made its rounds we’ve also found out many of these bodies may have belonged to prisoners in China, right, and they may not be being used (with) permission?”

Matt Rosenberg: “Well exactly right, and ‘Bodies’ was hailed as educational and innovative and it certainly was, but there was a lot of controversy because nothing was known, not only about whether permission had been granted by the individuals, but really, how they died or what they’d been jailed for – and these concerns stemmed from ongoing human rights troubles in China, where despite great economic and social progress, there’s still been documented reports in recent years of politically motivated detentions and beatings, forced abortions, property confiscation and Internet censorship.”

Nancy Barrick: “Yeah. Something not everyone knew about the exhibit. And if we pass this law, we’ll be following, what, in the tracks of San Francisco?”

Matt Rosenberg: “Well that’s right. They passed a measure like this in the year 2005. And City Council member Nick Licata is the driver of this legislation, and his Housing, Health, Human Services and Culture Committee is going to have their first discussion of the bill today, they might even vote on it. And if it clears committee, it goes to the full council, and could become law. But, you know, this about basic human dignity, I think. It’s great to see how muscles really work. Or what a diseased organ looks like. And this so-called ‘plastination’ process that they used in ‘Bodies’ is definitely a breakthrough, but the permission issue is big. And then, Premier Exhibitions, Brian and Nancy, is a publicly-traded company on Wall Street with a market capitalization of $54 million and they’re doing this in 10 (North American) cities right now. This is very much a money-making enterprise, so, all the more reason for it to be on the level.”

Brian Calvert: “Interesting stuff. Matt Rosenberg, thanks for your time this morning, Matt’s with