Our View: Disservice to taxpayers

 

Our View: Disservice to taxpayers

 

Date: August 1, 2013
by: Observer Staff

 
 

 

Most everything legislators do is well intentioned. They get gold stars for that.

The execution is often what destroys taxpayers’ confidence in government.

Take the annual public tax-and-budget notices government authorities are required to publish. Good idea. Really lousy execution.

To be blunt, most of them are meaningless and worthless the way they are presented.

Case in point: the recent public notices from the Sarasota County School Board, as depicted in the accompanying box.

It might be difficult to read them in these reduced sizes. But that’s OK, you’ll see what we mean in a minute.

Start with the first notice at the far right: “Notice of Proposed Tax Increase.”

Yes, it shows taxpayers that the school board is proposing to increase its expenditures in the next fiscal year:

• From: $325,508,808
• To: $348,059,388

But those numbers are virtually meaningless. There is no context.

For instance, what percentage increase is that? Is it above the inflation rate? How much above? Why is the board projecting higher costs?

If this portion of the notice is to be useful to taxpayers, the least the school board can do is report the percentage change of the proposed expenditures.

In this case, if you do the math, the school board is proposing a 6.9% increase in spending, or an increase of $22,550,580.

That gives you context. And if you’re a curious taxpayer, you’d say: Hmm, inflation is running about 2%; why is the school board proposing to increase its spending at more than three times the rate of inflation?

But there’s nothing — other than the invitation to go to a public hearing this past Tuesday. There should be an explanation.

Another part of that “Notice of Tax Increase” box is equally worthless. It says: “A portion of the tax levy is required under state law in order for the school board to receive $70,854,943 in state education grants. The required portion has increased by 7.41% and represents approximately 6/10 of the total proposed rate.”

Huh? Again, no explanation. Taxpayers are left in a fog.

Now go to the bigger box at right. Trying to decipher that information so it’s relevant is also virtually impossible.

Here’s the relevant information we gleaned from studying that mish-mash of numbers:

• Proposed operating expenses are projected to increase 4.5% over the current fiscal year. Good to know. But it doesn’t explain why that percentage differs from the increase in the “Notice of Proposed Tax Increase.”
• The proposed total millage rate is 7.97 mills. The next obvious questions, which are not answered are: What is the current millage rate? Is the proposed millage rate going up? By how much? Why?
Again, there is no context for taxpayers to make any informed judgments about the school board’s budget. For instance:
• What is the percent change for each of the sources of revenues and expenditures from the current year to the proposed budget?
• In what categories are there abberrations — either big increases or decreases? And if there are abberrations, what are the reasons?

Without context or explanations, these and all similar public notices for municipalities and county governments serve little or no purpose for taxpayers.

We know government administrators don’t like being mandated to publish this type of information in newspapers. Many officials claim taxpayers no longer read newspapers; that these notices are a waste of taxpayer dollars; and that this information should be made available on government websites only.

All three objections are inaccurate. In fact, two years ago, the Legislature adopted legislation mandating public notices be published in print and online, making sure taxpayers had as much access to this important information as possible.

That was a proper step, particularly in light of this period when taxpayers straddle the print and digital worlds.

Unfortunately, state lawmakers for too long have neglected an equally important part of this process: If taxing authorities are to be required to give public notice of how they plan to spend tax dollars, taxpayers deserve useful information.

 

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