Open Forum

Easily Accessible Budgets

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The issue on the table – how can we have a better grasp of our local government’s financials?

Questions to Consider

  • Are the currently available public budgets easy to understand?
  • How detailed should public budget documents be?
  • How best can taxpayers share their input?
  • What expert analysis should accompany a public budget document?
  • What other concerns should we be talking about around this?

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Once you’ve thought over what you want to say, join the conversation in the comments below!

10 comments on “Easily Accessible Budgets

  1. Laura Redding

    The more transparency and sunshine, the better! As a tax paying citizen, we deserve to know where every dollar is spent. From big capital expenditures all the way down to how much toilet paper we’re buying. It should be as easy to gauge the financial status of our local government as it is to gauge the financial well-being of my own household.

    • David Mingia

      Unless your household budget in in excess of 12M dollars with multiple departments and regulations out the ying-yang it will NEVER be as easy to gauge government spending compared to a personal budget… but, I DO get your point and agree it should be open to the public down to the TP. So far, at least in Lincoln County, I have found that if you ask– you get the answer. The question is… how to present it to the public in a way we can understand. Any ideas?

      • I love the focus on more sunshine Laura!

        And David, you’re right that it won’t ever be as easy as a personal budget. But we can make it easy to understand like corporations do for shareholders, non-profits do for donors, etc.

        I have a friend who’s running for mayor of Chicago. Much bigger than our local governments so much more complicated. But one thing he was able to do as a candidate was an itemized receipt. He said:

        “You deserve to know exactly how your money is spent.We created a receipt and an interactive full city budget so you can see where your tax dollars go. Hold your elected officials accountable by following the money.”

        The receipt shows how every $100 in taxes is broken out. And it was done by a small team of volunteers working with a mayoral candidate. Check it out at https://www.nealformayor.com/money.

        Something like that would be awesome to have for our own city and county budgets.

  2. David Mingia

    I have asked both the city and county budget directors (or whatever their titles are) for information and found them BOTH more than willing to supply whatever I wanted. Being new to Fayetteville and wanting to learn about the administration I have decided to use two principles as much as possible… a) Follow the money b) try to stick to primary sources whenever possible. I have found the finance departments very open and willing to share. It did surprise me the county budget lady was initially taken aback at my request but ONLY because I don’t think she had ever been asked before. She did email me a PDF of the 2018 budget the same day. She would have printed it for me but, I asked that we not waste paper. On the city side I asked to see department request for capital equipment request and I was shown original request documents… not bad. I have found the Fayetteville 2017 audited financial report online >>>> http://www.fayettevilletn.com/City%20of%20Fayetteville%202017%20Audited%20Financial%20Statements.pdf

    I have been reading thru what I have received but, so far have drawn no conclusions other than I think the city is on solid debt/cash flow footing. I do wish the county had stuff online.

    • You’re right David – it’s been easy to get when I go actively seeking out that information. Kudos to those folks in the city and county offices who helped me with that for previous posts and podcast episodes.

      For me, our governments should be transparent-forward, i.e. all publicly available information around the budget should be posted online. That way people that don’t have the time/resources to contact the finance offices still have access to those docs. We should have some way to see all incoming revenues and outgoing expenses, how they compared to last year, and what each revenue/expense is for in an easy to access and read online format.

  3. The city’s budget info dating back to 2008 is on their site. Not sure where all the complaints about them not being public are coming from. They are right there. 2018 isn’t up yet (from my understanding) that it’s still being audited and will be up here in the next few months. The ones I clicked on are pages and pages and pages long. If they line itemed every single thing down to toilet paper….. that list would be thousands of pages long. As you say, people don’t always have the “time/resources” to reach out about it, how are they going to have the time/resources to go over every single item if they don’t even have time to simply call and ask for info? I see a lot of complaining but not a lot of people actually trying to find the answers.

    • Yep! Some of the financial documents are there. Here’s the audited reports going back to 2008 like you mentioned:

      http://www.fayettevilletn.com/government/financial_reports_of_the_city_of_fayetteville_tennessee/index.php#revize_document_center_rz3

      Those aren’t the public budgets, though they are really helpful. If I missed the page where those budgets are, do let me know (and forgive me for my search-ninja skills not being up to the task).

      And you’re right that there’s a challenge with those being hundreds of pages long. The language can be challenging for people not versed in financial statements too. I think we all can agree that we can do better, right?

      For complaints versus answers, I can’t speak for any posts/comments outside of this page. But in this one so far, I think we’ve all done a good job not complaining. There’s several comments on how helpful both the county and city public officials are whenever someone asks for more info on this or other items. Personally, I know Cole Bradford at the county office and Adriane Gay at the city office have both gone above and beyond whenever I had questions around the budget and other financial docs.

      My interest is instead – what can we all do better when it comes to this area of local government? It’s not that the current setup is wrong or anything along those lines. But I do think it can be better.

      What can taxpayers and public officials do together? I really like the receipt idea from above. That could be one answer.

      As a graphic designer yourself, I’m curious what an illustrated recap of the budget might look like. Your marketing experience is really interesting here too. What could a marketing campaign around educating people on the finances of a local government look like? Could it even be a thing?

      I think there’s so many options we don’t even know are out there until we start the conversation. That conversation is going to get experience along with fresh ideas at the table. Sometimes there’s more questions than answers. And that’s okay!

  4. I was looking through how other cities and organizations presented their budgets and financial docs. Two really stood out to me:

    The City of Denver – https://www.denvergov.org/content/denvergov/en/denver-department-of-finance/financial-reports/city-budget.html

    The Walt Disney Company – https://www.thewaltdisneycompany.com/investor-relations/

    In both, we see clear and easy to understand explanations of the financial health of those entities. They do a good job of explaining, not just presenting, which I think is key. Not saying we have to be like them, cause our small town isn’t. But I think those are ones we can pull lessons from.

    • Really great examples Jane! We can definitely learn from those. I like how Denver has a one-page infographic, an eight-page interactive snapshot that explains a bit more, and then dives deep into the weeds with the full budget. I also love how they break it down into “My Tax Receipt”. It’s clear and easier to understand!

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