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April 5, 2012

‘Report card’ grades counties’ assets

INDIANAPOLIS — A new report card that ranks Indiana counties on their assets and liabilities may rankle some counties that fared poorly, especially those that flunked health and education.  

But the head of the state-financed project hopes the data-driven A through F grades will motivate local leaders to work for long-lasting change.

The report, dubbed the Indiana Community Asset Inventory and Rankings 2012, shows a strong link between population gains and losses and a host of factors, ranging from the quality of local schools to the efficiency of local government.

Ball State University economist Michael Hicks, who directed the project, said he’s already heard from some county leaders who fear the information will undermine efforts to woo new businesses and residents to their communities.

It’s criticism he’s heard, but dismisses with an analogy: “can’t advertise myself as looking like Brad Pitt because anybody who sees me will be greatly disappointed,” Hicks said. “So we have to be honest ... There are some areas where I don’t look like Brad Pitt, but that I could fix.”

The county-by-county grades and rankings are online, at asset.cberdata.org.

The report was compiled by Ball State’s Center for Business and Economic Research, which Hicks heads.

Using publicly available information, from school test scores to local crime rates, the report issues grades for each county in seven categories.

It’s the second county-level ranking that’s come out this week. On Monday, the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released the annual County Health Rankings. That report, online at www.countyhealthrankings.org, includes a ranking of the overall physical and mental health of all 92 Indiana counties. It’s based on obesity levels, smoking rates, infant mortality and other health indicators.  

State Sen. Tim Lanane, an Anderson Democrat who sits on the Senate public policy committee, said the information in both reports released this week should be used to generate some serious public policy conversations at the state and local levels.

“It’s only harmful if we do nothing with this information,” Lanane said. “If it’s just there for potential businesses to look at and say, ‘Let’s stay away from that community,’ then it doesn’t serve the purpose for which it’s intended.”

Still, some communities may grimace at what they see. The F grade in the “Human Capital: Education” category awarded to Madison County, for example, alarms Mark Finger, executive director of the Madison County Education Coalition. The coalition partners local schools and businesses to help boost the local schools’ success rates.

The F grade was based on measurable data, including standardized test scores, high school graduation rates, and the level of educational attainment of residents in the county.  

Finger said the F grade doesn’t reflect the efforts under way to improve those indicators. “We’re actively addressing the education issues in our community,” Finger said. “We’re taking the steps to say, ‘this isn’t good enough.’”

Each of Indiana’s 92 counties are included in the asset inventory. Some fare quite well, but no county received perfect scores.

Hendricks County, the second fastest growing county in Indiana, received A’s in education and in amenities like arts, entertainment and recreation. But it got a C in the category of “government impact and economy” which includes things like the local tax rate and the crime rate.

Some of Indiana’s rural counties fared the most poorly. Daviess County in southwest Indiana, for example, earned an F in the “Government impact and economy” category. It earned C’s and D’s in the other categories.

Hicks expects the report will generate some heat. He’d like it to prompt conversations in local communities about long-term fixes. “These aren’t things that can be fixed in a few years,” Hicks said. “It takes a generation or more to make any sort of significant change.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI Statehouse Bureau in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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