Can You Find The Budget?
Published 4:26 pm Thursday, January 31, 2013
Prince Edward: F
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These are the grades handed out to three local counties in a recent report published by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit alliance which promotes transparency in local and state government.
According to the report, area counties are struggling to make their budget information easily accessible to the public online.
The study looked at how many “clicks” it took to reach the budget from a locality's homepage. County's grades were also affected by other factors that influenced ease of access such as: the use of the term “budget”; whether the budget was published as one document and was searchable; whether it was the current year's budget; and whether additional information was included that helped provide context or summarize the document, instead of just a long list of numbers.
Data for the report was collected by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University last October, three months into the budget cycle, so localities would have plenty of time to post the adopted budget.
Of the 134 Virginia counties and independent cities that were graded, a total of 18 localities received an “A.”
Twenty-six received a failing grade. Fifteen of those had not published a budget at all. The remaining 11 failed to make the current year's budget available.
Prince Edward County was listed among those localities receiving an “F” because, according to the report, “they did not make a current budget available.”
When The Herald checked the Prince Edward County website last week, “Preliminary Budget Documents” for the current budget were available, including a thorough budget presentation, but not a copy of the final approved budget.
When asked when the County usually posts the budget, Prince Edward County Administrator Wade Bartlett answered, “we try to put it up shortly after it is adopted, but evidently that didn't happen this time.”
Within forty-eight hours of being contacted by The Herald, the approved Prince Edward County budget for the current fiscal year was made available online.
Despite receiving low grades for the availability of the budget online, local county administrations seemed eager to make the budget as accessible to the public as possible, both off- and online.
Buckingham County Administrator Rebecca Carter commented that she had seen the report earlier and was surprised by the County's low grade. She believes the wrong budget may have been posted at the time. She says she immediately ensured that the current year's adopted budget was made available.
Carter stated that she generally tried to make sure the online budget was up to date.
Carter felt it was important that the budget was made available to the public, adding, “so people can see…where the money is going…”
She also pointed out that the public can access not only the current budget but the board of supervisor's agenda and board packet from each meeting, which includes a listing of all bills paid by the County.
Cumberland County Administrator Vivian Giles said that she was already in the process of requesting some changes to improve the County's website before the report was published.
In regards to the budget, she said, “I'm a big proponent of getting it out there.” She also said she was open to suggestions regarding how to make the budget both more accessible and understandable, “because, it's the people's money.”
Although Prince Edward County received an “F” for not having the current approved budget on their website, it did provide an extensive written explanation and narrative of the budget, the type of supporting documents the report encouraged to be included on locality websites as a means of making the budget more understandable to the public.
Referencing the budget presentation and explanations available on the Prince Edward County website, Bartlett explained that he wanted to give “not just a lot of line items with a lot of numbers. Some of that explains where the numbers come from. Some of it explains, in word format, – which some people understand better – where the taxpayer's dollars are going.”
He added, “we have a lot of information there for the public, because we want the public to know…”
Giles also stated that one of the first things she had Finance Director Howard Paras do when he began working for the County was change the format of the budget, making it easier for them to follow. She said, “My hope is that the general public also finds it easier to follow, because that is what we were shooting for.”
Although the current budget is not yet there, a hard copy will be bound and placed in the public library, according to Giles.
Prince Edward County currently has a hard copy of its budget available at the library, according to Bartlett.
He also added, “anybody who comes in and asks for any information, we always give it to them.”
However, Bartlett stated he had a problem with how the study was graded and designed in the first place: “Their only assumption is that people only obtain information over the internet. Rural counties, such as us, have a large number of people that do not have access to high speed internet.
“You don't have high speed internet, you're not going to draw nothing down off of the internet, our budget included, which is several hundred pages long. So, evidently, for that coalition, those people don't count and I take great offense to that.”
While the report acknowledges that the Code of Virginia does not require localities to publish their budgets on their websites, it rationalized that “the digital age presents unprecedented opportunities for government to provide citizens access to essential information.”
Pointing to the availability of the budget at the library and through his office, Bartlett commented in conclusion, “If we're trying to hide it, we sure aren't doing a very good job.”
Although the Town of Farmville was not analyzed in the study, The Herald confirmed that their current budget is available online and was available after clicking the word “budget” on the homepage.
Neighboring County grades ran the gamut: