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ALEXANDRIA TATEM: Some county budgets hard to access

by Alexandria Tatem Special to the Democrat-Gazette | February 15, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.

How many days does it take to be able to get a copy of your county's budgets? According to my experience, the answers range from instantly online for counties such as Faulkner and Pulaski to over 100 days in the mail for counties such as Clay and Arkansas. On average it took me 30 days to obtain at least partial county budgets for 67 counties. I have not been able to receive budgets for eight counties.

In conjunction with the Transparency in Arkansas Project at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics, I spent months gathering and documenting the challenges of accessing the most basic fiscal document for any level of government: the budget. I contacted all 75 county clerks with the goal of obtaining copies of their county budgets from the last five years.

It was harder than you might think. Outdated equipment, lack of resources and, in some cases, poor training all made this difficult.

Out of the 75 counties in the state, only three counties post their complete budgets online: Faulkner, Sebastian, and Washington. Many counties do not maintain digital copies of the budgets. Fifteen counties did not have the resources to scan their originals into the computer and email the copies to me, but offered to mail the hard copies at a cost. This cost ranged from $10 to $265 based on how many pages were included.

By email, I obtained 40 complete budgets. Of the 40, six counties sent me the budgets on the same day I requested them, and 14 sent me the budgets within a week. In these cases, I only had to contact the county clerk one or two times to receive a response. On average, it took 17 days to receive the budget through email, and the maximum number of times I reached out before receiving a response was three. It took over a month to receive the budgets from nine counties.

By mail, I received 15 budgets. Ten were the complete budgets I was expecting to receive, two counties sent me only the ordinances, one county sent me budget summaries, and two counties sent me budgets for only some of the years I requested. The maximum number of times I contacted county clerks before receiving the budget information was nine. It took over two months to receive information from two counties: Arkansas and Clay.

I never received budgets from eight counties: Ashley, Cleveland, Dallas, Lee, Newton, Scott, Union, and Woodruff. These counties told me they would call or email me back with more details, but never did. Major obstacles included fax policies, limited staff, and the need to obtain approval from other branches of the county government. One county clerk required me to send a fax to prove my identity before speaking with me. Another refused to make copies to mail to me because they did not want to pay their staff to do it. Three of these counties transferred me between departments so many times that I was speaking to the first person I called by the end of the transfers.

How, then, can counties make it easier for residents to access financial information?

All Arkansas counties should emulate Faulkner, Sebastian and Washington counties and publish current and historical budgets online. Doing so makes it easier for residents to access budgets. The benefits of fiscal transparency are well documented. A 2017 research paper in the Public Administration Review titled "25 Years of Transparency Research: Evidence and Future Directions" by Maria Cucciniello and others shows that fiscal transparency instills fiscal discipline and reduces corruption which in turn saves counties money.

You might be concerned that poorer counties do not have the resources to create and maintain websites like wealthier counties. But there are alternatives, like using the Arkansas.gov platform. In fact, a 2018 transparency report by Mavuto Kalulu, Terra Aquia and Joyce Ajayi titled "Access Arkansas: County-Level Web Transparency" reveals that even the counties that do not have stand-alone websites have some presence through the Arkansas.gov platform. Financial information, including budgets, should be added to the information that the counties share with the residents through this platform.

It is a democratic right for citizens to know how public officials use and intend to use their tax dollars. Arkansas counties should strive to make access to financial information easier. Publishing the 2019 county budgets would be a great new year's resolution.

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Alexandria Tatem is an alumna of the University of Central Arkansas and the Schedler Honors College, and a former student worker with the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE). Her work on this project was supervised by Dr. Mavuto Kalulu, a policy analyst at ACRE who focuses on transparency and good governance. The views expressed are her own and do not represent UCA.

Editorial on 02/15/2019

Print Headline: ALEXANDRIA TATEM: Some county budgets hard to access

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