A Call for Transparency
Have you ever looked at your city's budget? How about the county? Or the state? If you haven't, I encourage you to go online and check them out. One word seems to echo in comments and debates about the recent WISD Millage Proposal...TRANSPARENCY. But it's not just about the schools; we need to demand transparency regarding the use of all public funds.
Washtenaw County does a great job of making information available to the public on their website www.ewashtenaw.org. So does the City of Ann Arbor. But when you start exploring, you'll find lots of numbers but very little context. Without context, the numbers are essentially useless.
For example, the Washtenaw County Budget Proposal is divided by department, so I randomly chose to look at the budget for Trial Court:
2008 Actual $8,799,686
It is easy to see the Trial Court department is aiming to cut around $1 Million from their budget next year. Are you curious where those cuts are going to come from? Then you need to access another document that provides individual department summaries.
There you'll find the Trial Court Central Administration section, which states, "Modifications in salary and fringes reflect assumed impact of labor negotiations and fringe. In 2009 lump sum budget reduction of $250K, in 2010 lump sum budget reduction of $800K with an additional lump sum budget reduction in 2011 of $450K."
You'll notice the Central Administration accounts for $3.4 million of the proposed 2010 Budget. You'll also see their budget is broken down into four sub-categories: Personal Services, Supplies, Other Services, and Internal Service Charges.
But there's a lot you won't see. You won't see how these categories break down. You won't know what Other Services cost $74K. You won't know why there's an increase of $30K for Supplies in 2010, compared to 2008 actual spending. You probably won't understand the provided definition of Internal Service Charges: "Change due to allocation of indirect cost recalculation on annual basis." I didn't. And you won't find information for the Trial Court-Civil/Criminal Division, which I assume accounts for the remaining $4.5 million in the 2010 budget proposal.
This example is from one department of county government, but it is representative of the problems plaguing all levels of government.
You can find some examples of government transparency, but unfortunately it is not the norm. For examples of transparency, go to www.showmichiganthemoney.org, where you can view the financials of some state legislators, school districts, and municipalities. Or visit Attorney General Cox's website, where there's a link to track your taxes. Transparency can happen if the public demands it.
The average citizen should be able to look at public finances and understand how funds are being used. Furthermore, this information should be easily accessible in a searchable database. Citizens would be able to learn about the inner-workings of government, which I believe would foster more participation in our political system. Citizens could take more active roles in all levels of government, acting as watchdogs against abuse, corruption, and excessive spending.
Budget shortfalls mean cost savings and spending cuts are necessary. Currently, politicians, lobbyists, and special interests dominate this process. Let's put the power back in the hands of the people. After all, it's our money being spent.
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