Cleansing Fire

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The devil is in the CMA details

July 11th, 2010, Promulgated by Mike

Did you know that the size of your parish’s Catholic Ministries Appeal assessment depends on how much DOR thinks you make? Well, it’s not that much of a stretch to say that it does.

A bit of history

Back in 2007 DOR made a significant change in the way it determines parish CMA assessments. Prior to this point the amount of a parish’s assessment depended largely on the size of its weekend Offertory collection.  In other words, your parish’s assessment was, in large part, simply a percentage of what you and your fellow parishioners were already donating over the course of the year.

Around this time someone seems to have decided that this wasn’t the fairest way to do business.  I suspect they noticed that the average generosity of parishioners varied from parish to parish in a way they suspected was not related to average income, and that this resulted in some parishes being given higher CMA assessments than others merely because their parishioners were more generous each weekend than the parishioners at those other parishes.

And so it was decided that, starting in 2007 and going forward, ability to pay would be the determining factor. DOR would come up with a way to estimate the total income of all parishioners within a parish and use that number as the basis for determining its CMA assessment.

The nitty-gritty

The process works like this: DOR takes the first family listed on a parish register, determines which zip code they reside in, looks up the U.S. Census Bureau’s median household income (MHI) for that zip code, and then assigns that dollar amount to that family.  This is repeated for every family registered in the parish and, finally, all those MHI dollar amounts are added up to give what I will call the Parish’s Estimated Total Parishioner Income (PETPI).

DOR repeats this process for every parish in the diocese and then all those PETPI amounts are totaled up to give a Diocesan-wide Estimated Total Parishioner Income (DETPI – again, my term).

Determining your parish’s CMA assessment is now a piece of cake.  If your parish’s PETPI is, say, 1.50% of the DETPI amount, then your parish’s CMA assessment will be 1.50% of DOR’s total CMA assessment.  (There is some other fine tuning that goes on, but the above is a good first approximation.)

A problem and a solution

When DOR first ran these calculations in 2007 a serious problem cropped up that affected a number of parishes.  It turned out that the new system would raise some parish CMA assessments by staggering amounts.  Holy Cross in Charlotte, for example, would have seen an immediate jump of some 67%.  Other parishes, such as St. Leo in Hilton, the Church of the Assumption in Fairport and Holy Trinity in Webster, would have been in similar straits. To avoid these crippling increases (and, no doubt, the outcry they would have caused) the decision was made to phase in the more massive increases over a period of 5 to 7 years.

But why was there a problem in the first place?

And so the problem had found something of a solution but this simply begged the question of just what had caused these massive assessment increases in the first place.  There seems to be at least three answers to that question.

First, some parishes probably do have a tradition of being more generous than others.

Second, many parishes had not been doing a very good job of keeping their parish registries up to date.  As a result, they were still listing many people who had died, moved away, or had just left the Church.  The new system gave all DOR parishes an incentive to go through their registries with a fine-tooth comb and remove people who no longer belonged there.  (This, I am convinced, is the reason behind DOR’s “loss” of 36,000 Catholics in just one year first reported here.)

The third reason is a bit more subtle and is related to the size of the geographic unit upon which DOR chose to base its calculations. In selecting zip codes DOR chose one of the larger units available.  In most cases this probably had little effect on the results, as average household income would seem the be constant throughout the zip code.  There are some instances, however, where this is obviously not true.

One of these cases is the 14612 zip code. The eastern part of 14612 is the Charlotte area of the City of Rochester and parts of Greece containing older, smaller houses on small lots.  The western part, however, contains mostly newer, larger homes occupying fairly large lots.  Compounding this differential is the fact that the eastern part of 14612 is home to many Holy Cross parishioners, while Catholics in the western part tend to belong to Our Mother of Sorrows and other parishes.

Now if average household income tracks closely with average home value – and there’s every reason to think that it does – then the income being imputed to HC parishioners living in 14612 is much higher than it should be, while the income being imputed to MOS and other parishioners is correspondingly much lower.

The way around this is to use a much smaller geographical unit when making these calculations.  In addition to MHI data based on zip code, the Census Bureau also provides MHI data based of what it calls “Census Tracts,” which only contain a few streets within a zip code.

This animated GIF file is my attempt to show the above in a graphical format …

Holy Cross - 14612 - Census Tracts

Fortunately, DOR is willing to recalculate CMA assessments based on Census Tracts, should a pastor suspect his parish is being victimized by the zip code method.  I believe HC is about to request such a recount.

“Equitable and fair”

When DOR first rolled out this method of calculating parish assessments in the fall of 2007 the accompanying promotional flyer asked and answered a very pertinent question.

Why are goals set for parishes and how are they determined?

Goals, accountability, and responsibility are very important for the well-being of the whole community, helping us to remember that we are part of a larger community effort. Working with the well-respected Center for Governmental Research and pastoral leaders, reasonable expectations of giving levels for each particular area are determined based on U.S. Census data. Every CMA goal receives careful scrutiny. They are as equitable and fair as possible. [The entire document is online here.]

“They are as equitable and fair as possible”?  Well, given some fine-tuning, DOR might just be right.

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One Response to “The devil is in the CMA details”

  1. avatar Nerina says:

    Amazing piece of work, Mike. Thanks for the effort this post must have taken. Very interesting.


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