Vail Daily column: We have a right to know
Do you have a right to know how your tax dollars are spent? An affirmative answer seems like a bipartisan no-brainer. So why would the Republican-controlled Colorado Senate State Affairs committee squash a bill sponsored by Sen. Irene Aguilar (D-Denver) acknowledging and protecting your right to know? Aguilar’s bill emerged from the exposure of misconduct.
A 2015 audit of a community-centered board in the Denver metro area revealed extensive financial malfeasance. Thousands of parents across Colorado depend on local community-centered boards to provide services for their adult children with developmental disabilities. Community-centered boards provide recreational and entertainment opportunities, vocational training, employment and respite care. Some even operate residential facilities so adults with developmental disabilities can live quasi-independent lives. Community-centered boards are nonprofit organizations, but largely taxpayer funded. Most of the funding for community-centered boards comes from Medicaid. In the case of Rocky Mountain Human Services their administrative costs exceeded what was reasonable and customary. Their expenses included providing Costco memberships to their employees, paying for home Internet service, and funding a going away party. Most galling was that their director’s salary was nearly half a million dollars annually — or more than twice what the average nonprofit director in the Denver metro area is paid. He has been fired.
To ensure this does not happen in the future, and to require more accountability, Aguilar proposed Senate Bill 16-038. According to The Colorado Independent, Aguilar’s bill would require “(community-centered boards) receiving more than 75 percent of their annual funding from public sources … to provide detailed financial records and other information when requested by the public. Aguilar’s measure also has the state auditor conducting performance audits of (community-centered boards) at least once every five years.”
The community-centered board that serves Eagle County is Mountain Valley Developmental Services in Glenwood Springs. A visit to the Mountain Valley Developmental Services website reveals extensive programing for people with development disabilities. Additionally, audits from the past two years are available online. By all accounts Mountain Valley Developmental Services appears to be a reputable and fiscally responsible organization. So is Aguilar’s bill legislative overkill based on one bad apple? Maybe, but consider that when the Denver Post investigated community-centered boards they found, “Most of the boards refused to release copies of their budgets when requested by The Denver Post.”
This seems like a tangent but I promise it is pertinent: Thanks to Mitt Romney, people are beginning to wonder just what bodies are hidden in Donald Trump’s tax returns. And thanks to Bernie Sanders’ relentless harangues, voters are wondering just what promises Hillary Clinton made to Wall Street when they paid her handsome speaking fees. The seeds of innuendo imply that lack of transparency means they must be hiding something.
When I reached out to Mountain Valley Developmental Services their director, Mr. Bruce Christensen, was remarkably prompt and thorough in his reply to me. His objection to Aguilar’s bill was that it would raise administrative costs, money that would otherwise go to services for their clients. Mountain Valley Developmental Services works hard to keep their administrative expenses admirably low (9 percent) so that most of their funding goes to services. As much as I appreciate that, I would still rather they pay the increased administrative costs if it meant that no community-centered boards in the future uses public funds for perks, parties and super-sized salaries.
And here is where we get to the “House of Cards” aspect of this imbroglio; all the Colorado community-centered boards belong to Alliance Colorado. Alliance is a lobbying group. All the community-centered boards pay dues to Alliance. Since many community-centered boards do not release their financial records, and under current law they are not compelled to, the exact amount they pay to Alliance is not known. The Denver Post was able to examine some records and showed payments to Alliance as low as $600 and as high as $42,909. Remember, that is taxpayer dollars paying for lobbying.
Did Alliance get to the Republicans in the Senate? Or does Aguilar lack the clout to wheel and deal to get her legislation passed? Is life imitating art when we cannot get legislators to agree that it is a good idea to keep an eye on those spending public money without Frank Underwood-style agreements? It is our money. We have a right to know how it is spent.
Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be found online at www.clairenoble.org or follow her on Twitter @byClaireNoble.
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