There’s a lot of talk these days among the likes of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and President Barack Obama about transparency in government.
But try finding online the 2009-10 Florida budget that lawmakers adopted last month. Good luck. It’s much easier finding the federal budget (www.gpoaccess.gov/USbudget/fy09/).
Of course, finding budgets is one thing. Understanding them is another. You can’t help but think our government financial officers purposely overwhelm taxpayers with numbers to confuse and obfuscate. The more data presented, the more charts, the bigger the budget books, the less likely taxpayers will have the patience and smarts to figure out what’s going on.
Here’s an example: Annual payroll and benefits expenses. Taxpayers would like to know: Are the salaries of city employees rising faster than inflation? Good luck finding a line item in any county or city budget showing that.
Here’s what Sarasota City Manager Bob Bartolotta said last year in his budget message about payroll: “This budget does reflect the elimination of 92 employment positions, which is three more than was announced in my April 16, 2008, memorandum … The combined total of positions eliminated in October 2007 and those announced in April 2008 equal 127 positions.”
There was no mention of dollars, no sense of what percentage of total employment that involved.
And look at the top table at the following link (http://www.yourobserver.com/content/Budget-Tables-20.html).
That’s the general fund summary of revenues and expenses for the city of Sarasota for the current fiscal year — the 2008-09 budget.
Wow. That’s a lot of numbers.
But what do they mean? You almost would have to be a masochist to go through that table line by line to figure out what’s going on — what the trends are, what areas are increasing and decreasing and whether there are any anomalies. About the best you can tell from this table is the bottom line — the city was expected to go from a surplus in 2006-07 of $2 million to a deficit of $3.7 million by the end of 2007-08.
But that’s it. For most taxpayers, this table is worthless.
What should be done — at all levels of government — is what every business does on its monthly and annual income statements. Every business that is worth a dime produces monthly financial statements that show the percentage change from month to month, quarter to quarter, year to year. That is meaningful data.
And, so far as we know, there is only one municipal or county government in this region that gives taxpayers a budget snapshot that shows year-over-year percentage changes on its budgets — Longboat Key. Kudos to Longboat Key.
With this data, Longboat Key taxpayers and town commissioners can see instantly if there are areas in the budget that are out of whack. It arms taxpayers and commissioners with information to ask “why?” It gives taxpayers some real transparency.
We are bringing this to your attention because, starting this month, every city and county is entering its annual budget process. Don’t let your government officials get away with obfuscating and hiding. Demand real transparency.