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Community reporting: Focus on expenditures

October 24, 2016

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Journalists should find out how spending is tracked in their municipalities.

Proximity to city hall seems as though it would mean easy access to much needed information. But being a reporter in small town USA doesn’t necessarily come with immediate entrée to essential data and numbers. This is why knowledge and chutzpah are especially critical for community reporters.

Understand budgets and expenditures

On numerous occasions when I ask about the budget breakdown for a certain program, I’ve been swiftly handed information, in the form of a budget. The budgets look good and there is a breakdown of allocations, including how much is going to personnel or parks and recreation.

But allocation isn’t the same as expenditure. To allocate is to set apart or earmark; expenditure is the act of spending money.

Even then, it may not be as simple as asking what was spent; sometimes the details of expenditure can be complex. For example maybe a municipality allocates X amount to an organization annually, but the contract stipulates that the organization needs to bill the municipality based on the number of clients it served that year. If $50,000 is allocated to a program but only $10,000 is billed, what happened to the other $40,000? This is why it’s critical to get a copy of the contract. It is often a simple process since many municipalities now have agendas and corresponding information posted online.

Knowing what you want and sticking to that is critical, and prevents being given the runaround.

Ask the right questions

I once requested the categorical spending for a business association in my city during an in-person interview with the association president. I was given a big smile and told that the budget information was in the city council agenda, and asked if I knew that I could access it online. Absolutely, I replied, then explained that in addition to the allocation I wanted the expenditures along with receipts. I was told they would get back to me.

When? Very soon. Since then the association has been MIA. A public records request to key folks in city hall elicited a lengthy email and links to past city council agendas, where I was again pointed to the budget.

I knew what the budget was. What I was asking for was the actual spending along with receipts and any key contracts and documentation. Okay, let me trying asking this another way, I thought. “Do you track the spending for the association and ask for their receipts?” The simple answer I received from city hall: “No.”

As a community journalist, sometimes the lone watchdog, it is important to ask for proof.

While I am not insinuating any shady actitives, the point is that community journalists need to know enough to ask the right questions to get the right information. Otherwise you could be swimming in spin and semantics and frustration for a long time.

Don’t give up the chase

And don’t be shy about asking for receipts. In a previous job, a government staffer once grimaced when I asked for a project’s receipts. “Well, we’d have to hire a whole other person for that, will you be able to foot their salary?” I told him it was part of my job. Thankfully I’ve found that most municipalities will cooperate if you are diplomatic and know exactly what you are looking for; they often don’t have enough staff to comb through a room full of receipts.

What is not so simple is having the persistence, stamina and chutzpah to keep an eye on the ball and keep asking. We owe it to our readers and to the taxpayers. As an old Japanese Proverb says, “a fish gets bigger when it gets away.” As journalists it is our job not to let things get away or questions go unanswered.

Reporter’s takeaway

• Don’t be shy about asking for receipts and attaching templates of how you would like to receive the expenditure breakdown.

• Don’t be shy about making public records requests, although it is arguably a last resort (once out there, everyone in the municipality knows what you are working on). Preferably explain your project and request the information in person, but put in a online request when it doesn’t move further.

• Some agencies may ask for more time to gather information. Understand they may be short-staffed and agree upon a time that works with them.


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