Is wasn’t but a few years ago that in order to see a Chesterfield County Budget you had to travel to the county complex, make your way to the budget and management office and request a document that was over 200 pages long. Now that budget is published on the county’s website, but the Virginia Coalition for Open Government (VCOG) says in a survey released last week that the budget is still too difficult to find on www.chesterfield.gov .
VCOG gave Chesterfield a grade of “C” (a score of 36 out of 50) for its openness and easy access to its budget. An average grade compared to other jurisdictions. The are 135 counties and cities in Virginia.
”Everyone knows what a budget is. Whether it’s your personal finances, a business balance sheet, Congress, a wedding plan, a PTA bake sale,” wrote Megan Rhyne, Executive Director of VCOG. “The budget is thus the most literal way government can be held accountable. The budget’s numbers tell us what the government’s priorities are. The numbers by themselves don’t have spin. It is up to citizens to decide if the money is being spent appropriately, in the right amounts and for the things we value. As we are what we eat, our governments are what they spend. We should have some way of keeping track of that.”
Bermuda District Supervisor Dorothy Jaeckle said she has often thought the county website difficult to navigate, but she says she doesn’t like to criticize without being able to present an alternative.
“I have not had the opportunity to look at all the A graded websites. I did look at Fairfax’s briefly and thought it was much cleaner and user friendly,” Ms. Jaeckle wrote in an email. “In my opinion, one of the most telling pieces of budget information is the increase or decrease of number of employees. Monetary amounts can be misleading because if you have a large number of retirees in one year and replace them with newer, younger workers it may look as if you had made cuts. That is one of the things I will be looking for.”
Jaeckle said that she will look at all the websites and let Village News know what features she sees as the most informative and user friendly.
A government’s roadmap to its information on a website is intuitive. Those in the many departments that make up local governments know just how to find the budget and its many sections because at least one of the sections impact their department.
On the other hand, when citizens search for a budget document online for information or how much will be spent on a program or service closely effecting them, or to do their own analysis on how their tax dollars find their way into the county coffers, they tend to want quick and easy access.
Chesterfield County is a large county with a large population and offers a tremendous amount of information on its website, but according to VCOG it takes five (5) clicks to get to the Chesterfield budget requiring negotiating a dropdown menu before reaching a menu that begins to take you to the budget.
VCOG asserts in their survey that “among the larger localities – the ones that are arguably more complex and more sophisticated – are in some way victims of their own success. Their websites are typically full of information and often feature slick interfaces. They may thus present their residents with loads of information, but that information may be hard to sort through and navigate.”
Chesterfield has been attentive to customer service on its website, and with the release of the survey by VCOG, Allan Carmody, director of the county’s budget and management department, was looking for solutions, “We will look into this and get back with you,” he said of the survey.
The Chesterfield does offer a full budget document for each fiscal year that begins in July. The budget staff is currently working on the 2013-2014 budget. Presentations to the Board of Supervisors on the various parts of the budget, begins almost immediately after the first day of the year. The Board will soon decide on a tax rate for the new budget year, and necessary cuts or add-ons to the spending side of the budget will be decided by the Board with a finished document completed and approved by the Board by April.
Other criterion were used to assess the presentation of a budget: having a citizen comment platform for the existing budget; explaining the budget process; providing a calendar of the process; offering CDs of the budget free of charge; including links to the future budget; and/or comparisons with neighboring localities.
Seventeen localities earned an A or A-. Fairfax garnered the top spot. On the other side of the spectrum, 26 localities received a grade of F. Eleven localities received an F because they didn’t post any version of a budget.
“I think this report gives the Board the ability to give a clear directive to improve our website to an A level,” Jaeckle said.
To see the survey in its entirety, go to http://www.opengovva.org/about-the-coalition/1654-how-many-clicks-resour...  or visit www.villagenewsonline.com  on Wednesday afternoon to follow the link.