Let’s follow the money in government

Published 1:05 am Sunday, March 10, 2013

Adams County and the City of Natchez rapidly are approaching the halfway point in fiscal year 2013.

In a mere three weeks, both local government entities will be 50 percent of the way through the budget year.

Such a moment would be a good time for citizens in each entity to get a quick update on the financial status.

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Often, citizens lament that government would be better if it were run like a business.

In most cases, that is impossible because businesses mostly exist to make profits, while governments exist to serve their population.

None of us truly want to the government to be making a profit because in most cases their revenue comes in the way of taxes and fees, which in turn is a reduction in the amount of money you and I have in our wallets, bank accounts or mattresses.

Still, a few traits of business would be good for governments to model. A key one, and one that is long overdue is providing timely financial updates.

Businesses, particularly publicly traded ones, must make regular financial reports to its stockholders. The financial information gives the owners of the company a quick glance at how the business is doing, relative to its budget and to last year or last quarter’s performance.

That measuring stick is critical to know:

Is the business operating in the black or in the red?

Is the business performing better or worse than it has been in the past?

Usually in reporting these results the executives with the company also provide some insight into the behind-the-scenes of the numbers. Sometimes one-time emergencies, for example, might raise an expense category for a short period of time, so it’s important to explain that the increase isn’t likely to continue.

All of this is quite boring to people without a vested interest in the company, but it’s fascinating if you’re an investor.

The same could be said for the budgets and financial performance of Natchez and Adams County.

For the majority of residents and taxpayers, public finance is boring and confusing. That’s why it’s rare to see more than a handful of citizens attend public hearings when the budgets are discussed.

The only exception is when word gets out of a possible tax increase. Then, suddenly, we all have interest.

But wouldn’t it be great, for the few people who realize the importance of having an efficient, financially sound local government, if a monthly or quarterly snapshot existed to provide a financial status update?

We all know government moves slowly, but if after all of the money spent on financial software and IT experts, shouldn’t we have the technology to provide such things?

If not, that should be a goal.

The phrase “follow the money” has become commonplace since it was first reported as the advice given to reporters investigating the Watergate scandal.

That phrase remains good advice to this day. Many decisions — and indecisions — seem to relate back to money.

The challenge is that not all of us are forensic accountants who can piece back together the breadcrumbs occasionally offered by the people entrusted with protecting — and counting — our public dollars.

At the end of this month, local government will be at the halfway point of the fiscal year, but does anyone know how we’re doing?


Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.