The City Fiscal Conditions Survey is a national mail and email survey of finance officers in U.S. cities conducted annually from April to June. Surveys were mailed and emailed to city finance officers for a sample of 1,050 cities over 10,000 in population, asking for their assessments of fiscal status, actions taken, and factors affecting their fiscal conditions. Budget and finance data were also requested from all cities. For the 100 largest cities by population, budget and finance data were collected directly from city budget documents. In total, the 2012 data are drawn from 324 cities, for a response rate of 31 percent. The data allow us to generalize about the fiscal condition of cities with populations of 10,000 or more.
The number and scope of governmental functions influence both revenues and expenditures. For example, many Northeastern cities are responsible not only for general government functions but also for public education. Some cities are required by their states to assume more social welfare responsibilities than other cities. Some assume traditional county functions. Cities also vary according to their revenue-generating authority. Some states, notably Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, allow their cities to tax earnings and income. Other cities, notably those in Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma, depend heavily on sales tax revenues. Moreover, state laws may require cities to account for funds in a manner that varies from state to state. Therefore, much of the statistical data presented here must also be understood within the context of cross-state variation in tax authority, functional responsibility and state laws. City taxing authority, functional responsibility and accounting systems vary across the states.
When we report on fiscal data such as general fund revenues and expenditures, we are referring to all responding cities’ aggregated fiscal data included in the survey. As a consequence, the data are influenced by the relatively larger cities that have larger budgets and that deliver services to a preponderance of the nation’s cities’ residents. When asking for fiscal data, we ask city finance officers to provide information about the fiscal year for which they have most recently closed the books (and therefore have verified the final numbers), which we generally refer to as FY 2011, the year prior (FY 2010) and the budgeted (estimated) amounts for the current fiscal year (FY 2012).
When we report on non-fiscal data (such as finance officers’ assessment of their ability to meet fiscal needs, fiscal actions taken or factors affecting their budgets), we are referring to percentages of responses to a particular question on a one-response-per-city basis. Thus, the contribution of each city’s response to these questions is weighted equally.