Grades mixed for the area on budget access
Posted: January 8, 2013
The Winchester Star
WINCHESTER — Frederick County and the city received above-average grades on the accessibility and clarity of their online budgets, while Clarke County was judged subpar.
The Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit advocacy group in Williamsburg, handed out the grades to the state’s 134 counties and independent cities.
Frederick County and Winchester both received B’s, while Clarke County was given a D.
In all, 18 localities received A’s, 43 earned B’s, 35 got C’s, 12 were handed D’s and 26 were stuck with F’s.
According to the recent report, the budget is the most literal way government can be held accountable — with no spin involved.
“As we are what we eat, our governments are what they spend,” the report states. “We should have some way of keeping track of that.”
Counties received grades based on how easy the budget was to find, how many clicks it took to get to it on the website, whether it was current and complete, the usefulness of the document, whether links to past budgets were made available and whether a synopsis/explanation was presented.
The group also based its grading on whether the budget was searchable by keyword and whether it was available in one document or multiple sections, or both.
To access Winchester’s site, visitors can scroll over the “Citizen” tab to find the current budget document, which is presented in a 12-page color format with an explanations of figures. To access previous budgets, however, visitors must go through the “Departments” tab and then to “Finance” and then to “Budget” — a three-click process.
Over the past year, Finance Director Mary Blowe said officials made the budget more reader-friendly and added more verbiage.
“It helps you understand where your tax dollars go,” Blowe said, adding that bondholders and someone who may want to invest in the community are interested in the document.
“They want to know how we’re doing.”
On Frederick’s site, visitors must click on the “Departments” tab to find the link to current and previous budgets. There is also a citizen’s budget guide that simplifies and summarizes the information.
“We always try to make it as transparent and easy to understand as possible,” said County Administrator John R. Riley Jr. “We’re pleased with our grade. We’re not disappointed with a B.”
On Clarke’s government website, patrons can find the current budget after three clicks, one of which navigates through the tab called “Joint Administrative Services (Finance and Procurement).” The budget document comes with no explanation, but there are links to previous budgets.
Tom Judge, finance director for the county, acknowledged that officials could improve the clarity of the budget by including a narrative explanation and making it more accessible, but to do so would require more staff hours. According to the study, the localities receiving failing grades tended to be among the smallest ones in the state.
“There’s more that we can do, but we’re going to have to scrape together the time to do it,” he said. “We don’t have a dedicated Web designer. You can go to some larger counties, and they do.”
Judge said those who have questions or concerns on the budget most likely won’t search for them online.
“They want to pick up the phone and tell me,” he said.
— Contact Rebecca Layne at firstname.lastname@example.org