County budgets represent our most important government functions. They are a record of how local officials allocate resources to schools, police, infrastructure and many other services. The amount of money we allocate to these issues and the efficiency we demand reflect our values.
According to the Arkansas County Judges' Manual, quorum courts are required by law to enact budgets that "assure the rendering of necessary and mandated services to the citizenry." The manual also rightly points out that "voters are the ultimate arbiters of how well a particular county accomplishes the task of allocating finances toward priorities." This means that community members are the main people who should be constantly vetting and judging how well their local-level governments are spending their tax revenue.
How can we ensure that community members have access to the information that enables them hold their local officials accountable?
The easiest way to start is to go to the county website and pull up the county's yearly fiscal budget. But there is a problem: Most Arkansas counties don't have their budgets listed on their websites. In fact, according to a 2013 study by Carolyn Harder and Meagan Jordan published in the Public Administration Quarterly, about half of Arkansas' counties did not even have websites where they could post financial information.
Our own investigation of the counties reveals that the situation has improved somewhat in 2017. Forty-two counties now have official websites. However, of the 42 counties that have websites, only seven have the 2017 budget posted on their websites, albeit some of them not easy to find.
Right now if a citizen wanted to check his or her county's 2017 budget online, they would be able to do so for Baxter, Faulkner, Pulaski, Craighead, Sebastian, Van Buren and Washington counties. Unfortunately for the rest of the 68 counties in the state, one must have purchased and kept a newspaper in which the budget was published. Alternatively, you could call the county treasurer's office for such information.
For previous years' budgets, you may even have to dig through the archives.
Publishing county-level financial information is good governance. It is an indication of how fiscally transparent your local government is willing to be. A 2016 review of research on outcomes associated with transparency by Gregory Porumbescu and Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen published in Public Administration Review shows that fiscal transparency enhances government accountability, instills fiscal discipline, and reduces corruption.
The counties that do not have websites or financial information online are not breaking any laws. The 2016 Arkansas code § 14-14-104 merely requires that counties publish a county budget once a year in the newspaper with the highest circulation in that county.
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Easy-to-access budgets and spending records are the minimum that should be provided to enable voters to assess the fiscal performance of their county governments.
State legislators should ensure fiscal transparency for local governments. An easy place to start would be amending the law requiring that counties publish their financial information once a year in a newspaper to include publication on counties' official websites. If a county doesn't have a website, the law could require county governments to publish their financial information on the state's transparency.Arkansas.gov website.
Fiscal transparency can enhance voters' confidence in their local government officials and encourage better use of local resources. Let's make the Natural State a transparent state as well.
Mavuto Kalulu is a policy analyst at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. Terra Aquia is a research assistant at ACRE. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UCA.
Editorial on 09/15/2017