A special project by Contributor John Guevara, with Managing Editor Shane Nicholson
Two weeks ago, we introduced our “Contract with the Community,” a 10 item list of simple reforms and ideas intended to bring about a more open, honest and transparent government. Over the coming weeks, we will explore in-depth each of those 10 items. This week, we look at No. 2, “Transparent budgeting.”
Transparent budgeting. Budget processes should be well documented and easily accessible. Budget discussions should be comprehensive. Everything should be published openly, well in advance of any vote, for the public to digest.
One of the reasons people don’t trust government is because they don’t know what the government does with the millions of taxpayer dollars it receives. In an political era dominated by calls for transparency, people continue to ask, “Where’s the beef?”
The response from government over the years has been to write budget treatises which read like graduate level textbooks. It makes sense. In most cases the authors have graduate degrees or certificates in business, economics or accounting.
Today, most major county and city budgets are available online. A specific Google search can turn up links to Rockford’s and Winnebago County’s budgets. Rockford’s budgets are almost impossible to find from the city’s homepage. Winnebago County’s budgets are marginally easier thanks to a transparency initiative pushed by former board members Joe Terrell and John Guevara, and current Operations Committee Chairman Gary Jury. Both governments could make their budgets more accessible from their respective homepages.
The City’s budget document mirrors those of most large local governments in Illinois by including a calendar detailing the process. That calendar is found on the third page of the 231 page document.
Rockford includes a paragraph about the budget process and claims, “It is the City’s policy to keep citizens informed during the budget process and to seek public input. In addition to holding public hearings, the City also makes available, before and after adoption, other summary and detail information. The City’s efforts are assisted by extensive media coverage (daily newspaper, four television stations and a number of radio stations).” The City also posts a prospective budget for the coming year.
The Rock River Times asked Rockford residents, many who are informed members of the community, when the next Rockford budget hearing was. The answer came back a resounding, “I don’t know.”
Winnebago County’s budget is more easily accessible but more difficult to read. There are no line graphs showing annual cash flow and expenses. No mission statement or departmental overviews. Pie charts detailing expenditures and revenue lay out horizontally, without context. Such lapses created the space for the ineptitude and criminal behaviors that saw hundred of thousands of dollars disappear from the county’s coffers, only the be discovered after the fact. What can happen when a lack of clear budgeting goals and guidelines that can be presented to the public for its review was on full display for the citizens of Winnebago County.
Since 2011, county board members – including former members John Sweeney, Kyle Logan, Kevin Horstman and Guevara, and current Finance Committee Chairman Ted Biondo – have called for a better breakdown of budget information similar to the way the City of Rockford does it.
Biondo is confident that new Chairman Frank Haney and CFO Carla Paschal will make providing that information a priority. “We need to see the cash flow every month so we know where we are,” Biondo said. He is convinced publishing the information will help ease taxpayers’ burden during labor negotiations.
McHenry County’s budget goes a step further than providing detailed graphs, mission statements, and yearly snapshots of what their government did with taxpayer dollars the year before. Their budget tracks Full Time Equivalent positions by each department over a five-year period, and the department’s cost per capita over the same time span. This provides a simple historical visual for taxpayers to see how many people have been employed and how much the office costs each McHenry County resident.
The problem isn’t that governments aren’t trying to share information. It’s that the information they’re sharing isn’t easily accessible and is often hard to read. Budget books run hundreds of pages; how can the average person penetrate the fog of information?
Here at home, the City’s Engineering Department publishes its own budget document of sorts every year, outlying the capital projects it plans to undertake; the specific dollar figures from local, state and federal funds attached; and drawings and plans of the finalized projects.
The department calls the CIP a “living document that allows for the ability to address unforeseen circumstances and the flexibility to react to changing situations,” information you can find in a few short clicks or by visiting ci.rockford.il.us/public-works/engineering-cip.aspx direct.
A living, open, transparent and readily accessible simplified budget document that outlines in clear terms exactly what the government body intends to do with your tax dollars. It seems like a novel concept, and one that is far too lacking in our modern political structures.
“Budget transparency, while not a goal in itself, is a prerequisite for public participation and accountability,” says the World Bank’s Budget Transparency Initiative. “A budget that is not transparent, accessible, and accurate cannot be properly analyzed. Its implementation cannot be thoroughly monitored nor its outcomes evaluated.”
Even down to the service-delivery facilities of local governments could more open budgeting processes improve outcomes. The three-day RPS 205 strike set to begin today is ultimately a symptom of our state’s complete lack of a budget; at a local level, it is a failure of government bodies to paint an accurate picture of the troubles looming. It pits school workers against parents when all we should be concerned with is the best educational outcome for students. The lack of clear financial information ultimately negatively impacts across the community.
Rock Valley College is another mired in a budget hell of Springfield’s creation. But, as has been common in similar institutions across the state, the school administration has failed to show to the public exactly what the impasse in state government has done to harm its finances. This leads to a barrage of reactionary questions from those impacted by its in-house budget slashing, many of which could be averted through more open dialogue with the community about the school’s financial position.
“The gesture of opening up government books of account is likely to lead to more trust in government,” a World Bank report says. “Budget transparency is also instrumental in generating higher revenues for governments since citizens are more likely to pay taxes and contribute donations to local schools and health centers if they trust that their money will be well spent.”
Government websites should make budgets accessible from their homepages. Budget documents should be clickable pdfs, so a user could click to a specific section from the table of contents. Yearly budget calendars should be available from the homepage, published in local media, and shared on social media. Budget documents should be easier to read. And five year view of full time equivalents and per capita cost should be included for each department.
Our community can have transparent budgeting across all levels of government. All we have to do is demand it from the people spending our money. It’s time for the leaders of local governments to commit to these best practices for a better government for all citizens.
Read our Contract with the Community, and let us know what you think we could do to improve it.