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County receives low grade
On access to budget data on website; city gets grade of 'B'

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Henry County received a grade of “F” from the Virginia Coalition for Open Government on a report card showing how well current fiscal year budget information is presented on local government websites statewide.

Martinsville got a “B”, and Patrick County got a “C.”

According to its website, the coalition looked at how easy it is — basically, how many mouse clicks it takes — to reach budget information on localities’ websites because budgets are at the root of everything government does. The fewer the clicks, the better localities generally fared.

But clicks were not the only factor considered. Grades also were based on matters such as whether budgets included information explaining them and not just numbers, said coalition Executive Director Megan Rhyne.

The budget is “the most literal way” to hold government accountable, the coalition’s website says, because “numbers by themselves don’t have spin” and “tell us what the government’s priorities are.”

“It is up to citizens to decide if the money is being spent appropriately, in the right amounts and for the things we value,” the website adds.

Full details of the survey are online at www.opengovva.org.

The coalition examined websites of each of the state’s 134 counties and independent cities.

A link to Henry County’s fiscal 2013 budget is on the county’s homepage, and one click takes a website visitor to it. The county’s failing grade solely was due to the spending plan not saying “approved budget” or something similar, according to Rhyne.

Although the approved budget was posted on the county’s website, “it had proposed budget written all over it,” Rhyne said. “To an outsider looking in ... it appeared to be a proposed budget.”

Henry County Administrator Tim Hall said he was “a bit offended” that the coalition was so picky.

“It seemed like overkill to me,” Hall said. “If my high school teachers had graded me that severely, I never would have gotten out (graduated).”

He noted that about five or six years ago, Henry County was one of the first counties in the region, “if not the first,” to begin posting budgets online.

The copy of the budget posted on the county’s website now says “adopted budget” and “the pages that follow are the actually (sic) budget as approved by the Henry County Board of Supervisors on April 24, 2012.”

After the budget was corrected to read “adopted” instead of “proposed,” the coalition offered to issue a press release noting the change. But the county told the coalition not to go to the trouble, Hall said.

In terms of damage control, sometimes it is “too hard to put the genie back into the bottle,” he said.

A link to Martinsville’s fiscal 2013 budget is on the city website’s homepage and one click takes a visitor to it, which Rhyne said pleased the coalition.

Yet the budget contained only figures — there was no information detailing them, which Rhyne indicated lowered the city’s grade.

Despite the “F” for not indicating it was the approved budget, Henry County included detailed information on matters such as expenditures and revenues, capital improvement projects and goals for the county in its posted budget.

“That’s certainly something we’ll look at” including when Martinsville posts budgets online in the future, said Interim City Manager Leon Towarnicki. It is “the kind of information we need ... to make improvements” to city financial reporting practices.

Still, “we were tickled” to get a “B,” city Finance Director Linda Conover said of city officials. “I thought it was pretty good.”

Towarnicki admitted he was “pleasantly surprised” that the city received as high of a grade as it did.

It takes three clicks to get to the fiscal 2013 budget on Patrick County’s website, which Rhyne said is about average among localities, hence the C grade that the county received.

Patrick was “kind of average on everything” the coalition took into account, Rhyne said. In terms of presenting its budget, “they didn’t stand out” among localities.

“They didn’t do it great, but they didn’t do it badly,” she said.

Patrick County Administrator Tom Rose was out of the office Monday and unavailable for comment. His assistant said Rose is the only county staff member authorized to comment on the budget.

In the coalition’s survey, the city of Fairfax was the only locality to receive an “A+.” Seventeen localities earned either an “A” or, in Franklin County’s case, an “A-.”

Using their websites, a resident would “be able to quickly and easily locate the budget, and would be able to use the material in a choice of formats to search by whatever criteria was important to him,” the survey says.

It took four clicks on Franklin County’s website to get to the county’s fiscal 2013 budget. Rhyne explained why that county received a higher grade than Martinsville despite forcing its website users to click more.

“It’s what you get when you get there,” Rhyne said. For instance, she said, Franklin County’s budget could be reached in multiple ways on the website, which includes a place for people to comment on the budget.

In addition to Henry County, 25 other localities received F grades. Fifteen of them had no budget information on their websites, the report card shows.

 

 
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