Where’d your taxes go? An expert explains

LIVINGSTON — You no longer have to be an investigative journalist to intelligently analyze your town’s budget. A new book, “Follow the Money, a Citizen’s Guide to Local Government,” written by Livingston resident Lynndee Kemmet and published by the American Institute for Economic Research in Great Barrington explains to readers how to track the financial activity of their own municipality – town, village, city or county — making the process of understanding where the money goes less intimidating and even more interesting than it might ever have seemed to those who don’t have a degree in accounting.

“Local government most impacts the daily life of Americans,” writes Ms. Kemmett, “But it’s the level of government that receives the least attention from local citizens. The irony of it is that it’s also the level that people can most influence… Yet so few do it.”

Ms. Kemmet earned her MA degree in public administration with a concentration in public finance from the California State University, San Bernadino, and has worked as a journalist covering local government, public policy and business. She has also been a researcher, writer and editor at policy institutes, and she brings all this experience to bear as she makes the case for citizen oversight of local finances at a time when newspapers have dwindling resources for such coverage.

Usually, the crafting of a budget, whether by a school board, town, city, special district, or county is a months’ long process that requires continuing observation over the entire process rather than just on the night of the budget vote. According to Ms. Kemmet, citizens have a right to get involved and ask questions from the earliest stages, and public officials may actually be eager to explain their process and to welcome public involvement.

Revenues need to be tracked as much as expenditures she says. “Where the money comes from helps determine how a city acts,” she says. Her advice: Ask how secure the revenue source is and watch out for fudged revenue projections.

In Ms. Kemmet’s experience, overestimating revenue is an easy way to balance a budget. She gives examples from across the country of excessive spending at the local level and suggests the best questions to ask and the best ways to phrase these questions.

Most likely every municipality has room for improvement and an involved public could help push a town board or legislature toward greater cost awareness. Ms. Kemmet finds that surprisingly few municipalities shop around enough for, or perform adequate monitoring of outside service providers.

Once a budget is passed, she advises it’s important to monitor its implementation and to note problems, potential or actual cost savings and other changes for the coming year. Attention to detail by average citizens could help a municipality or other entity avoid a tidal wave of debt. Perhaps most important, that citizen could be you.

“It’s not as complicated as citizens think or city officials might make it seem,” she says. It comes down to two things: revenues and expenditures.

To order a copy of “Follow the Money,” write to: AIER, 250 Division Street, PO Box 1000, Great Barrington, MA 01230; call: 888 528-1216, or visit www.aier.org

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