This is the season for publication of annual financial reports by local government units, except for schools which publish their reports in the fall.

Newspapers have been publishing these reports as public notice advertising for decades.

My challenge to reporters is to take a look at these reports as the starting point for a story or stories.

What might one discover?

Since these same local government units had their proposed 2016 budgets posted on the state Department of Government Finance website in the fall of 2015, a reporter could compare the proposed spending to the actual amounts. The comparison may show a noteworthy variance between the former and the latter.

It doesn’t necessarily mean anyone did anything wrong. Pothole repairs may have been higher than normal due to the number of extreme temperature swings during the winter and spring. Healthcare premiums for public employees may have jumped more than anticipated.

You might have to take a deeper look into the spending than what is published in your newspaper, but that’s OK. The financial records of government units are available upon the asking under an Access to Public Records Act request.

The story may be a good story. Tax income and the units spending may have been right on budget and kudos are deserved for being good stewards of public tax dollars. Or maybe, some efficiencies were implemented that resulted in spending that was less than the budgeted amount.

Readers might be interested to see what the big ticket items are in the budget or a segment of the budget. What percentage of the budget goes to public safety, whether its police or fire protection? Within the salary costs, what percentage goes toward healthcare or pension obligations? What entity received more money from the government unit in 2016? What was the service provided by the no. 1 recipient of budgeted dollars?

Reporters also could do comparison stories between government units within the county. You could compare spending for fire protection between the various rural townships. Is there any difference between the costs for townships that run the fire departments compared to townships that contract with volunteer fire associations?

Most counties have multiple small towns whose spending could be compared. Are differences in particular categories from one town to another and indication that some departments are more efficient than others or does it reflect a greater priority in the provision of that service in own town compared to another?

As you talk about the 2016 spending or the 2017 budget, I’m sure local officials will offer their opinions on the budgetary challenges they face under the property tax reforms that the legislature put into place a few years ago.

Or you may get an earful from a school superintendent as to the property tax dollars the school district isn’t getting because a TIF district was created.

Journalists pride themselves as the watchdogs of democracy. What could be more worthy a project for newspapers than to focus on the spending of the various government units in your county or readership area.

If any of you accept the challenge or were already planning of these types of stories, let me know. I’d like to read the stories that started with a public notice advertisement.

 

 

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.

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