Every summer and fall, our government bodies produce enormous budget books with every last detail of how they’re spending your money. But it’s an exercise in confusion.
Do you really know where your tax dollars are going in the next fiscal year?
Of course not.
Too late now. All of the budgets and tax rates for next year are set in stone.
And even though all our government entities are transparent with gobs of budget and financial information during the budget process, unless you’re a numbers nerd who thrives on this stuff, good luck if you really want to know where your money is going.
Sure, you may look at your TRIM notice — truth in millage (hah!) — in the summer. And you probably have a good idea how much you pay in property taxes each year.
What’s more, from June through Sept. 30, you might read a story now and then in the Observer or elsewhere about the millage rates local governments are proposing for the next fiscal year or the percent increases government employees are going to receive in raises.
But our guess is you probably can count on two hands the number of taxpayers who actually dig — and we mean you have to dig — through all the local government bodies’ annual budgets to decipher how your elected officials and government administrators are managing your tax dollars.
Thank goodness for the few who actually serve as taxpayer watchdogs. And to be sure, we in the media should be doing that job too. That’s part of our responsibility. And although we do report each summer and fall on the tax rates and budget totals our local government bodies adopt, we’ll admit we could be better watchdogs.
Not to make excuses, but here’s the thing: The way each government entity presents its financial information is different. And virtually none of the government bodies presents it in a way to be user friendly to taxpayers.
To their credit, each government loads its budget book with enormous amounts of detail. It’s all there — except, of course, the detail you really want to know: how much each of the top people in the administration is earning.
But it’s overwhelming. Consider these budget books:
- City of Sarasota: 479 pages.
- Sarasota County: 778 pages.
- Sarasota School District: 307 pages.
Kudos for transparency and information. Unfortunately, woe to the poor taxpayer who tries to understand what it all means. Perhaps that’s the idea — to overwhelm and confuse.
Here’s what every budget book should have: a one-page, understandable snapshot and summary of how much money is coming in, how much is going out and the tax rate.
Equally important, that snapshot should show how all those figures compare to the previous year and what the percentage change is from the previous year. Give taxpayers some context, so they can see what areas of expenses are going up or down. The city of Sarasota has such a page for its general fund.
Finally, that information should be in the first pages of the budget book, so it cannot be missed.
All of the finance directors do great work compiling information. But the way it’s presented is a disservice to taxpayers. KIS — Keep it simple.