Comparing city fees: A New Kind of Race to the Top

Mary Ann Miller

By:  Mary Ann Miller, President/CEO, Tempe Chamber of Commerce

City government has an interesting way of benchmarking against other cities.  Instead of looking to each other to share best practices, cities spend more time comparing what they charge.  As long as the charge or fee or tax is comparable to their neighbors, it’s deemed reasonable.

There are so many things wrong with this process, I’m not sure where to start.  I’ll just focus on three:

  • Fees are set with no actual relationship to the cost.
  • The comparisons give no indication as to the service actually provided.
  • Aiming for the mid-range of fees just results in higher and higher fees.

Let’s say, just for example, that the City of Tempe is looking at fees for fire inspection.  It currently doesn’t charge for the service, but it’s looking for ways to increase revenues.  As part of setting the amount, it looks at what is charged by Chandler, Mesa, and Phoenix.

So no one actually is looking at just what it actually costs to do the inspections.  No one analyzes just how long the inspections take, what level of staff is needed, nor how much it will cost to track and send bills.  Activity-based costing is a lost art.

Nor does anyone find out just what is being done in the other cities.  Are they productive or do they take more time than needed?  Does the inspector spend 10 minutes at a business or an hour?  Do they provide a written report to the business or just point things out?  Is the cost comparison based on anything comparable?

Then there’s the idea of pricing things somewhere in the middle.  So if Tempe sets a rate somewhere between Mesa and Phoenix, it may leave Chandler with the lowest fee.  Since the other cities are also comparing themselves, then Chandler can feel justified in raising its fees, which signals to others that they can raise their fees.  And so on.

Over the years I’ve seen this comparison used for everything from building permits to library usage.  Sometime the City Council decides to reject the new rates, but often the comparisons are accepted at face value and embraced.  It seems elected officials have forgotten the wisdom of just about every mother who’s asked to give permission for something that all their child’s friends are doing:  “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”

City Boards and Commission Positions

By: Karyn Gitlis

Do you have a few spare hours each month? Do you enjoy volunteer work? Are you interested in the ins and outs and details of historic preservation or aviation or mechanics/engineering or libraries or museums? Opportunities abound to get involved in interesting and rewarding work with similarly interested and interesting people. Apply for a City of Tempe board or commission seat. See below.

I currently work with the Tempe Aviation Commission and have been a member of other city committees. The work has been educational and gratifying. Feel free to call me if you would like to chat about these opportunities.

Karyn  480.967.5226

City of Tempe Board & Commission Recruitments

September 8, 2011 – October 7, 2011


Applications are accepted for all boards and commission listed.  Please note that the highlighted boards and commissions have no vacancies at this time.


  • Aviation Commission*
  • Board of Adjustment*
  • Building Code Advisory Board
    • Structural Engineer
    • Commission on Disability Concerns*
    • Development Review Commission*
      • Double Butte Cemetery Advisory Board*
      • Historic Preservation Commission (Alternate)
        • Archeology
        • Community member at large
  • Historical Museum Advisory Board*
  • Housing Trust Fund Advisory Board*
    • General housing related issues
  • Human Relations Commission*
  • Industrial Development Authority*
  • Joint Review Committee
  • Judicial Advisory Board*
  • Library Advisory Board*
  • Merit System Board*
  • Municipal Arts Commission*
  • Neighborhood Advisory Commission*
  • Electrical Code Advisory Board of Appeals
    • Electrician
    • Electric Utility Representative
    • Fire Department Representative
    • Maintenance Electrician
  • Parks, Recreation & Golf Advisory Board*
  • Plumbing and Mechanical Code Advisory Board of Appeals
    • Plumbing Contractor
    • Doctor or Health Official
    • Mechanical Contractor
    • Architect
    • Mechanical Engineer
  • Police Citizens Review Board*
  • Tardeada Advisory Board*
  • Transportation Commission*

Applications are available at the City Clerk’s Office, 31 East Fifth Street, 2nd floor or at  Applications are kept on file for one calendar year.


* Tempe residency required