Are there benefits to publishing county budgets online? There are several, but one in particular stands out. Improving the management of tax dollars is perhaps the most important benefit of having easily available budget records. When public financial information is widely available, stakeholders are empowered to spot and correct ill-advised uses of tax dollars.
An article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette dated Jan. 3, 2018, illustrates why improving access to financial information can lead to improved resource management. The article reports that by checking past budgets, Faulkner County Public Defender Lynn Plemmons noticed that the Quorum Court had diverted more than $350,000 of the 20th Judicial Circuit public defender's office to other programs as far back as 2001. That is 17 years of diverting budgeted funds from one program to other programs.
The Faulkner County Quorum Court has since agreed to stop the practice, but it probably would have continued if Plemmons had no access to the budgets.
Despite the Quorum Court's resolution, this case highlights more questions that need to be answered. Would more sets of eyes on the budget have caught this anomaly earlier? Is this the only anomaly in Faulkner County's use of public resources? Are there other counties in Arkansas that have diverted public resources in questionable ways?
Plemmons' focus was on his department, but the county's budget belongs to its taxpayers. Taxpayers who fund county operations have a clear interest in being able to easily access public budgets to scrutinize how elected officials intend to use the public's resources and how they are actually used. The more eyes scrutinizing the budget, the more likely anomalies are caught. In addition, the fact that more people are closely monitoring the use of resources pressures elected officials to be more prudent in the way they use public resources.
Online publication of detailed budgets allows for such scrutiny. The Internet has long been the primary source of information. Pew Research Center reports that the percentage of people using the Internet nationally as a source of information grew from 52 percent in 2000 to 89 percent in 2018.
Unfortunately for Arkansans, most counties do not publish their budgets online. A 2018 study of Arkansas Web transparency titled "Access Arkansas: County-Level Web Transparency" by the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) assessed the information counties publish online. The report revealed that eight of the 75 counties in Arkansas published their 2017 budgets online and only nine have archived budgets online.
Increasing the number of counties that publish their budgets online would lead to improved management of public finances. Yet concerned stakeholders often argue that some counties lack the resources to be able to publish budgets online.
This is a concern easily overcome. ACRE's study revealed that 40 counties in Arkansas maintain stand-alone websites. These counties should utilize their websites to publish their budgets online. The remaining 35 counties maintain some Web presence through the Arkansas.gov platform. These counties can utilize this platform to publish their budgets.
Still, some will argue that requiring budgets to be published online is unnecessary given current law.
As it stands, each year counties are required to publish financial information in a local newspaper or a newspaper with the most circulation if the county does not have a local paper. The current law has some flaws. It does not require counties to publish their forthcoming budgets so that residents can see how their county intends to spend their money. In addition, what if you miss that day's paper or do not subscribe to it?
Online publication of budgets and financial statements, in addition to newspaper publications, seems the best way to increase accessibility of both current and previous years' financial information.
It is the beginning of the year, and people are making new resolutions. Counties should resolve to publish their budgets online. They can start with the 2019 budget. It is prudent stewardship to let residents know what is included in the budget. After all, they are the ones who will be footing the budget through taxes.
Let's get more eyes on the budget by publishing them online so that we can increase the chances of catching any budget anomalies like Plemmons did in Faulkner County.
Mavuto Kalulu is a policy analyst at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Central Arkansas.
Editorial on 01/28/2019