Vail Valley Voices: Fiscal clarity crucial for all levels of government
Clone Brandi Resa.
Agree or disagree with her, one has to admire her willingness to work tirelessly for citizen driven democracy. She has been a pain in the hindquarters for proponents of the big commercial development that the town of Eagle recently approved. She then landed a seat as a trustee on the Eagle town Board.
Now she has the brashness to try to understand the town’s bookkeeping. When she found a handful of termites that would spark most any financial person’s interest, she blogged about it. Apparently, she ruffled some feathers.
First, by attempting to noodle through the town’s accounting, Ms. Resa is doing basic, fundamental oversight work that is a core part of citizenship. Anyone could be doing it, but she happens to be an elected official and a CPA. So she has both responsibility and directly relevant professional skills.
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Hopefully, everything is just hunky dory in the town’s ledgers. But termites sometimes live in colonies.
Public sector money habits at all levels of government – federal, state, and local – have been loose enough to run up $100,000 of hard public debt for a typical U.S. family making $70,000 a year.
Public officials have piled another six to eight times that in softer financial obligations.
Despite a modest cyclical upturn, financial pressure is here to stay. All public entities should expect to meet a higher burden of proof of financial efficiency than that to which they are accustomed.
Significant numbers of taxpayers believe that public entities spend money as if it was free because it is so easily raised. They would prefer that it be treated as sacred money, to be spent with the utmost care, because it is collected with the threat of force.
So if Ms. Resa is asking questions of the town and finding numbers hard to nail down, cannot determine how much aggregate employee compensation was, or cannot duplicate the town’s dollar totals with data supplied by the town, she should keep digging.
External auditors report the town has chronic bookkeeping deficiencies. The town may be tempted to dismiss them with the wave of a hand, but investors in private entities of similar size take any issues auditors raise very seriously.
If a trained pro has trouble making sense of the town’s financials, what chance does the average citizen have? None.
If it turns out that the town’s numbers are sound, fine. The town can rectify its citizen communication shortfalls by improving its financial reporting.
Any citizen with a high school diploma should be able to understand where every penny was spent. Special skills or additional research beyond reading the financial report itself should not be necessary.
Ms. Resa’s efforts could prompt the town to make itself understandable to its citizens. The town has pledged to provide its trustees with financial reports every calendar quarter. That is a start.
So if Ms. Resa wants to poke around in the town books, people should cheer her on.
Second, writing “code of conduct” rules in response to Ms Resa’s blog appears to be a measure intended to suppress a viewpoint of diversity. It does not pass the sniff test.
At least one prominent Colorado school board attempts to force a facade of unity with similar rules. Such censorship works against the goal of fully informing citizen. That is a goal of citizens, but not always the institutions they fund. Said institutions often promote their own causes rather than act as neutral advisers to the public.
As individuals, the town’s elected officials and staff undoubtedly are wonderful souls. Certainly, individuals have feelings that can be hurt. Yet they must understand the public has a complete moral right to know what they do and how they do it.
It is no secret that countless people with similar responsibilities have either mishandled public money unintentionally or succumbed to financial temptation. Fiduciary fraud has happened right here in Eagle County.
So I hope that the honest Eagle County people in these positions of trust are prepared to take any and all questions regarding public money without being offended. It is only smart management for the public and their representatives to ask.
Ms. Resa is going the extra mile in the cause of good government. If there had been more people like her in the past, America’s public debt would be manageable now.
Listen to her.
Vince Emmer is a financial analyst. He can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org