County opens towns’ books

PICK A NUMBER, any number–one you might have wondered about, like, say: How much does my town supervisor make? But what would that figure tell you without knowing the salaries of other supervisors?

If you were really curious, you could drive to other towns and pore over the pages of each towns’ budget to find what you were looking for. Or you could finish doing the dishes and forget about the whole thing, because life’s short.

But finding the facts just got much easier. This week, Columbia County, which has a reputation for dragging its knuckles when it comes to providing access to digital records, released an online resource called the “2010 Town Budget Comparison.” Go to the county website, www.columbiacountyny.com, and click on the “2010 Town Budget Comparison” link at the right, and suddenly you have access to a wealth of public information about how the 18 towns in the county spend their–your–taxes and whether spending in your town matches what we’re paying in mine.

Budgets should be the most public of documents. Each fall all towns must hold a public hearing before adopting the town budget for the following year (villages adopt their budgets in the spring). Some towns post their budgets online, too, though it’s often after the fact. But average taxpayers and even geeky newspaper editors need time to make sense of these pages full of numbers. Well, too bad. Often enough a town board will adopt its spending plan before anybody thinks to ask why the Police Department needed a new set of fuzzy dice.

The beauty of the new online comparison is that taxpayers now have months to look at what their town pays for services and supplies and to compare that to what other towns in the county plan to spend. Taxpayers in Chatham, for instance, might not know that they have the largest town budget in the county at nearly $3 million, which is half a million more than Kinderhook spends, though Kinderhook has twice as many people. Or maybe the folks in New Lebanon would want to know that they have the highest percentage tax rate in the county.

The town board members who voted for the 2010 budgets probably have good reasons for these and other uncomfortable comparisons, and some towns come off looking frugal to the point of stinginess (should Clermont pay its supervisor a little more than $115 a week?). This suggests that the new report poses a risk to the way the county has done business in the past because, to put it mildly, county government has lacked transparency.

Like the budgets themselves, the new report contains a lot of numbers, and it’s quite likely that some who use the report will misread or misinterpret what’s there. That’s a small price to pay for shedding so much sunlight on the operations of town governments.

The county Board of Supervisors’ statements that accompany the release of the budget comparison report  acknowledge the work of three students from Taconic Hills High School who collected and entered the data for the reports. In the past, only the now-defunct newspaper, The Independent, used to compile such data, though in much less comprehensive form, and it took a whole lot of time and determination to get it. Those young people did a huge amount of work and they deserve the public’s praise and gratitude for their effort.

Appreciation for the job done and the political fortitude to see this project through to completion also goes to Board of Supervisors’ Budget Officer Art Baer (R-Hillsdale), and, frankly, to the town supervisors, some of whom might soon look back longingly on the days when their constituents had no practical way of knowing how the town next door handled its tax money.

The other big risk in compiling this helpful data in digital form lies in whetting the public appetite for more. To its credit, the county has also recently posted online assessment data from around the county which, unlike the town budget data, is easily searchable. Let’s have more reports like these two and update them at least yearly.

Local taxes are rising beyond our ability to pay. We have no choice but to adjust and adapt. These new digital resources are indispensible tools in that process, or at least they are for those of us who believe that the more we know, the better choices we’ll make.

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