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Spotsylvania ranked 14th in government transparency based on website info

I was able to figure out how to copy and post double-sided documents after too many hours of learning the copy machine. Ugh.

Anyway, here is the study on government transparency and the methods The Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy used.

Enjoy.

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/spotsygovt/2010/06/24/spotsylvania-ranked-14th-in-government-transparency-based-on-website-info/

  • bhaas

    Thank you Dan.

  • bhaas

    Well, what can one say?

    I have read the TJI report. and Spotsy did rank 14th. However, as someone once said, the devil is in the details.

    A perfect score was 100 points. No locality acheived that score.No locality achieved a score of 90 or even 81. The highest score was 80. Spotsy achieved a 55.5. When I went to school that 55.5 would have been a D or F. Not something to brag about.

    Only two localities scored above 70. Only five scored above 60. 129 (96%) scored less than 60!

    23 Virginia localities received a ZERO. A “goose egg.”

    Remember, this ranking is for TRANSPARENCY. It is not a ranking for effectiveness or efficiency or any of the other things one might rank a locality. It is a ranking for how well you and I, ordinary citizens, can “see inside” our local government.

    I guess the overall conclusion for me is; from a transparency standpoint, Virginia “sucks.” The TJI was kind, IMHO, when it concluded: “Localities in Virginia were generally dismal in their efforts at online financial transparency.”

    What say you?

  • http://Z2KS LarryG

    I was thinking how much visibility the citizens in the counties rated zero had.

    Perhaps we’re spoiled up here?

    I totally agree with your dismay that the top score was 80 and Spotsy is in the 50s.

    I had no idea that some localities had online checkbooks where Spotsy got half credit but I don’t recall seeing one.

    And I agree that just knowing does not guarantee efficiency and a lack of waste.. or effectiveness… but without that information – you really are out of luck – so it’s a start.

    Again – an effective local citizens group IMHO would point out the areas where Spotsy scored low and represent a public urging to improve those areas – perhaps even getting candidates for office to sign on to that idea and promising to address those issues if elected to office.

    Note that Steve Thomas and DJ ran into some of these issues when they tried to propose an alternative budget.

    If Spotsylvania had scored higher – would they been able to proposed a better alternative budget?

    Maybe…

    I like the online checkbook idea a lot.

    I think the schools provide it.

  • bhaas

    You know…I was thinking, always a dangerous situation, and I vaguely recall that at one of the BOS meetings someone, maybe Mr. Connors, mentioned Spotsy’s ranking at 14th. My recall was that it was a kind of passing comment and there was no discussion.

    Well, my “thinking” was that now I understand the lack of “enthusiasm” I believe I detected on the BOS that night.

    In any event there certainly is a lot of room for improvement.

    I am not sure we have an “effective” local citizens group.

  • http://Z2KS LarryG

    We have some that are limited in their scope and involvement in anything more than elections and some issues like VRE.

    Steve Thomas and company pursued some promising efforts but more political than citizen-oriented.

    . Very few counties/cities in Va have active, general government organiations. There is no reason that they cannot exist and do good work that benefits citizens and government especially now in this day and time of internet communications.

    This is why I keep saying that citizens get the govt they deserve.

    Elected officials are ordinary people who do respond to constituents but when 9 out of 10 public hearings have no one there to say anything at all – they can get cynical – even arrogant… just human nature.

    BOS is really a thankless job in a lot of respects especially for those who work at regular jobs and then have BOS work gobble up much of the remaining part of their lives.

    Most of them welcome CONSTRUCTIVE feedback – which can be a complaint – but combined with something like ” a better way do do this would be……”.

  • http://MAVRICKinc7@msn.com Martin (Marty) Work

    A better way to do this is open the closed doors and let the public into take a look at what local government is selling and wants us ti buy, sight unseen.

  • http://MAVRICKinc7@msn.com Martin (Marty) Work

    By the way, you guys have a good weekend. You know where I live and you guys are so good at sharing. Thanks.

  • oedipusrx
  • Wiseman

    Larryg. I find it amusing that every time there is an issue in the county you have started to criticize Steve Thomas.

    Apparently you think that it is up to Steve to attack this lack of transparency, but when he does you claim it is not citizen centered but political.

    Why don’t you, in your extensive typing, go after the real culprit- the BOS and our very own reporter Danny?

    The BOS had a budget review committee made up of private citizen with budget backgrounds. This group was attempting to fight through the smokescreen of the county budget. They were fired by this BOS. Why? Good question, one you might ask or perhaps our very own uninterested reporter Dan. This should have been a huge story, but with Dan it of course wasn’t. You know he could have just asked the question “Why?” but chose not to.

    So next time you take Steve to task remember, it’s not his job, but someone else’s.

  • http://MAVRICKinc7@msn.com Martin (Marty) Work

    You must be one of those oversight volunteer committee members the BOS let go a couple years back when the BOS wanted to, as Supv. Connors recently reflected that his “Reinvention Government Task Force will look for ways to STREAMLINE, CONSOLIDATE (make even smaller) our operations and PROCESSES and hopefully make som substantive CHANGES (beyond those made of the last 2 years) that help US (whoever that might be, but not constituents) do things better, CHEAPER and FASTER.”

    Since it’s about to start raining in Supv. Connors world, I’ll put my umbrella and head for cover.

    By the way, Larry prefers his prey to be compromised by politics. Shooting ducks in a barrel bring anything to mind?

    When this issue begins to take better shape and WE can or allowed to see the trees for the forrest, maybe we’ll better appreciate the idea We deserve better than what we’re getting back from our elected leaders, their minnions and best friends. Until then, it’s one layer at a time. Any chance we could SPEED-UP that PROCESS?

  • http://MAVRICKinc7@msn.com Martin (Marty) Work

    Your wisdom and insight are deeply appreciated. Thankks.

  • http://Z2KS LarryG

    @wiseman – point taken! BTW – Steve is a self-avowed Conservative Republican whose standard party shtick is a more open, more transparent and more accountable government.

    That was at least part of the theme behind his alternate budget proposal – right and I did applaud it heartily.

    But, I like to “encourage” Steve and company to do less idealogical things and more fiscal conservative things because as you point out we do need it and to be honest, it’s the part of the Republican Party now days that I miss the most.

    I was dismayed also when the budget review committee was deep sixed. I will point out though that that committee could still function as an effective citizen committee doing just what Steve did.

    That committee had a lot of expertise – hence the ability to read and understand much more about the budget than the average citizen.

    But just FYI – from a political viewpoint – you cannot “work” for the county and at the same time criticize it unless you are an Ombudsman or similar.

    What many BOS expect from citizen committees is constructive criticism not overt opposition – not in their position an alternative shadow government.

    I truly don’t know what happened but my perception was that at some point, enough of the BOS perceived less than friendly actions … and decided to let them pursue that path as a more independent group.

    That’s politics. I doubt very seriously that more than a handful of counties in the state have a serious ..truly independent citizens budget committee.

    Steve Thomas proved that you can set up an alternative budget and he even got constructive feedback from the county so you don’t have to be an “official” county entity to accomplish useful things.

    I’m not an apologist for less than wonderful actions by the county or the BOS …at times just somewhat pragmatic and somewhat understanding of human nature and politics.

  • http://Z2KS LarryG

    just FYI – the locality comparison identifies specifically the areas of transparency that some counties provide that Spotsylvania does not.

    There is no rule that says that the ex-officio budget committee or Steve Thomas or any citizen could not urge the county and the BOS to provide … and in Steve’s case, to have that as one of the things that a candidate would offer to do at the BOS level or for opposition to Houck – to promise legislation to encourage counties across Va to meet the best practice standards practiced by the better counties.

    Spotsylvania, a few years back started into a greater level of accountability to included something called a Balanced Scorecard but what the BOS found out was that hardly anyone in the county showed any interest in collecting the data and keeping records of the metrics so it’s pretty much withered on the vine.

    Citizens do get the govt they deserve sometimes.

  • http://MAVRICKinc7@msn.com Martin (Marty) Work

    I foe ONE am not buying what you’re trying to sell. Come to think of it, what are you trying to sell to the citizens of Spotsylvania County?

  • Dan Telvock

    Wiseman,

    Your post was inflammatory.

    I did write a story about the county ending the budget committee–but it wasn’t just the budget committee they killed. They killed about 10 others, because they had too many.

    I did ask why. Marty Work can attest that the stories were written because he, too, was concerned about the ending of the numerous committees.

    The BOS decided to kill the budget committee because 1. it was overtly anti-school system 2. It added to the divide between the BOS and the School Board 3. It placed all problems on the school system 4. Supervisors didn’t appreciate the negativity from this committee when it did not feel appropriate to use their recommendations.

    Search our archives, the story is there.

    Thanks again,

    Dan

  • http://Z2KS LarryG

    Well.. I didn’t find it THAT inflammatory… but yes some strong opinions on citizens committees and especially the budget committee.

    I think a lot depends on an agreement and an expectation of what kinds of things a citizen committee would have as it’s framework and expected work product.

    My view was that some on the budget committee clearly did not feel that their bosses were the BOS but almost considered themselves in an inspector general or ombudsman role to the point where they could operate in an adversarial manner and I do not think the BOS was comfortable with that kind of a committee.

    How many counties in Va have budget citizen committees with that level of autonomy?

    If there are some, then I’d like to see them … because this kind of a committee can be problematical if it turns into a political instrument.

    Further, if people that are on the same team are not coordinated in their focus – it’s can actually result in a dysfunctional organization with too many voices.. 14 different people who are trying to pilot the boat.

    I would have rather seen a continuing budget committee myself but it was obvious that some personalities had a much more adversarial operational focus in mind than the BOS was comfortable with.

    I still think that THE one single Virginia Auditor Report that Mr. Logan got that compared how much Spotsylvania spent per-capita on schools compared to peer counties did more to help the BOS decide how much money to fund schools with than all of the fru fru about it that came from the budget committee on that issue.

    The BOS actually has one more option if they want to use it and that is that Va Code allows the BOS to fund by specific category – like instruction, administration and maintenance and Stafford has begun doing this.

    If not mistaken, we still have quite a few citizen committees STILL – right?

  • http://MAVRICKinc7@msn.com Martin (Marty) Work

    Well Larry, if the BOS eliminated 12 Committees and put PDR (Property Development Rights) under the direction of the Agriculture/Forrestry Committee, then who’s left?

    Who serves on the Agriculture/Forrestry Committee? What roles do they play in Land Use and Development as CITIZENS?

    On the issue of eliminatiing any citizen oversight COMMITTEE, begs the question of whether the public are being appropriately informed about, as in the case of the Budget Committee, how their money is being spent. Eliminate the Committees and there is no longer any oversight and the elected government acts out of unknown agendas they chose not to share with their constituents.

    Instead of the four (4) reasons cited by the BOS and endorsed by the FLS as the reasoning behind the elimination of the Budget Committee, what would be wrong with citing another 4 reasons?

    No.1: The Budget Committee raised real concerns about the cost of education, asked hard questions that the School Board didn’t want to answer and the BOS didn’t want to know about. Ask yourself how mmany times you have lectured on how money is spent in our educational system to this very day.

    No 2: The Budget Committee didn’t add anything more to the divide between the BOS and School Board than was allready there, except the Committee came to this divide with hard and documented numbers, not as an adversary. Simply said, the BOS didn’t want anyone else to know how badly they were managing the County’s business in matters of spending. It also didn’t conform to the standards set by the BOS for polite conversation, and the price of being found out. Please recall it was just a couple months prior that the BOS praised the work of the Budget Committee and endorsed their committed activities.

    Autonomous? Larry, how much more disfunctional do you think the BOS, as an organization, could have been then or now when they couldn’t deal with the truth being documented by the Budget Committee, who are now religated to being a watch-dog looking from the OUTSIDE…IN. Simply said, you can’t whitewash or muddy up the fact the Spotsylvania County Government and elected officials have distanced themselves from public overview and conduct businees behind closed doors and you’re part of this problem.

    No.3: The Budget Committee was holding the School Board accountable for their spending agendas, and the less accountable the BOS would allow the School Board to be, the more accountable the BOS would be for not doing anything.about controlling County spending.

    Want to talk about Fire/Rescue/EMS or how you spell dysfunctional.

    4: Ther was no negativity, except that being demonstrated by the BOS against the Budget Committee’s details and documentation that might serve to shorten the lives of their political life, in comparison with doing right by their citizen population, were anyone to know otherwise, especially those who were trained to know better; The citizen Budget Committee.

    So, what sprang to mind. The BOS eliminated 12 citizen committee groups, for fear of being found out they were losing market share. So they created an “oligarchy” government, closed the doors and have been keeping everyone out since then.

    The FLS has every presentation or written concerns I’ve made about this less and transparent or accountable
    local government. Put Spotsylvania County Government, FAMPO and the County’s “FOCUS GROUP” without minutes in the same room and you’ll understand what I’m talking about, and it’s no longer a THEORY.

    Happy trails. History will still provide the answers. It all depends on which versions you ELECT to buy into. Been there, done that.

    Want to talk about past County Administrator Randy Wheeler, and what we got with Balanced Sheet Reporting, and how a penny saved can be worth alot down the road?

    Or would you really like to know how Spotsylvania County is going tospend your collected gas taxes for FY 2001. I still think $1,600,000 is a lot to pay in gas taxes for PRIOR TRANSPORTATION DEBY SERVICE. How about you?

  • http://MAVRICKinc7@msn.com Martin (Marty) Work

    By the way, what contributions have the Sierra Club and the Committee of 500 (50) made toward bettering our quality of life in Spotsylvinia County? Maybe these are the last two standing Committee’s the BOS have left over from their exploration of single minded thinking.

  • http://rightwingliberal.wordpress.com/ D.J. McGuire

    It took me a little longer than I anticipated to get to this (not that any of you would care about that, but onward).

    FWIW, I don’t consider Larry’s comments in #3 to be a slam. I’ve seen Larrry hit me good and hard in cyberspace, but not there. Truth be told, the gaps TJI noted Spotsy’s budget (expenditure info and contracts) were the very things that made presenting an alternative as difficult as it was. While I must note that more than half of ther savings (in $) Mr. Barnes’ equalized budget scenario were in our recommendations, I’m also pretty sure that with more data, we could have put together a better product.

    What would truly be helpful is activity-based-costing, so we know not just where the money goes, but what it does (or what it’s supposed to do). It was one of the issues that led me to run, FWIW.

  • http://Z2KS LarryG

    DJ, Steve Thomas and myself are all on the same track with budget process (perhaps others as well).

    I’d only point out (reasonably I hope) that activity-based accounting by itself won’t tell us much unless we know what to compare it to and consequently the ability to determine if we are paying too much or not.

    I’d also like to point out an interesting part of the recommendations of the Gibson Study of Spotsylvania Schools – which was a bit of a shocker to me – that the schools were not spending ENOUGH money on a couple of functions.

    And as most business folks know – not spending enough money on something – can lead to a loss of efficiency and harm to your business.

    Of course the trick in that is to know.. and that’s the difference between those who really are in business and really do risk their personal (and family) assets and the rest of us blather-butts.

  • http://rightwingliberal.wordpress.com/ D.J. McGuire

    That’s why I, personally, tend to be leery of “across-the-board” cuts. I prefer the “rack and stack” approach, which is why I pushed for activity-based-costing (your note on comparison is well-put, BTW).

  • SteveThomas

    I am still confused as to the reasons the budget is not given line by line. Someone will have to explain that to me someday. I daresay with that one small innovation, we might take over first place on this list of dubious distinction!

    Try cutting any budget, even the Federal one, without line by line numbers. The funny thing was, people would come back and say, “Oh, you can’t cut that. It has XYZ program in it”. How the heck would we have known?

    There are some things the county does well by way of transparency, but the things they don’t do well are crippling. Makes me feel bad for the people who live in the lower counties on the list, like Westmoreland, who apparently does all their county business in an undisclosed underground bunker, where the minutes are burned afterwards.

  • http://MAVRICKinc7@msn.com Martin (Marty) Work

    I’m still trying to justify paying the salaries of a once “self-maintained” Planning, Code Compliance and Zoning Departments out of “GENERAL FUNDS” under the guise of public safety.

  • LarryG

    re: “line by line” …. do ANY of the ranked counties do this?

    I’m in favor of more granularity but would point out that the ultimate version of it would be an online checkbook – which apparently some of the top-rated counties do provide – but I have not availed myself of looking at the additional things that the top-rated counties do that Spotsy does not do

    ….. and in my mind could form a legitimate justification for advocating.. perhaps even a campaign issue.

    … candidates that show me true interest in transparency and accountability AND keep the partisan horns under control are appealing

    we just can’t seem to get the Goldilocks fiscally conservative candidate… a shame.

    A local AD HOC Citizens group could also take this issue

    goes back to how much time and effort each blather butt is actually willing to put in time on task to move the issue forward.

  • http://rightwingliberal.wordpress.com/ D.J. McGuire

    FWIW, Marty, the closest thing I ever got to an answer came in a quick sidebar with Mr. Barnes. He didn’t go into detail on Planning/CC/Zoning functions, but rather said that listing specific departments for reductions (as Steve and I did) targeted certain people for firing. Why it would be better to keep everyone working for the county in the dark and on tenterhooks . . . well, I didn’t think to ask him that. Mea culpa.

    Larry, FWIW, I tried to make better budget data an issue, but that and everything else were, shall we say, run out of town on a rail.

  • LarryG

    I did not get the impression that ya’ll were run out of town on a rail. Seems that you did get a response… and I would tend to agree with Barnes of targeting positions.

    That’s not a good way to run a political campaign either if you ask me because I don’t think you really want a campaign that draws bull’s eyes on particular people.

    The State Auditor of Public Accounts has some really excellent data on county taxes and spending and really does allow a pretty honest comparison on the costs of major county functions – on a per capita basis

    The average per capita for the state for Planning and Community development is $92.11. Spotsylvania is $40.16.
    Prince William is $97.64 Stafford – $48.47, Fairfax is $168.31, Henrico – $102.39.

    Now that does not tell me that Spotsylvania might not be able to find additional efficiencies but it does tell me that they are not one of the state’s worst examples either.

    Your budget recommendations also struck me as a bit arbitrary where it appears that you assumed that the county operations were not very efficient but did not arrive at the same conclusion for law enforcement and schools.

    Just FYI – Spotsylvania is in the top 10 in Va in education costs per capita.

    We are higher than places like Henrico and Chesterfield.

    The State Auditor locality comparison report is at:

    www[dot]apa.state.va.us/data/download/local_government/comparative_cost/Amended%20Cost%2009.xls

    You’ll need EXCEL .. it’s a big spreadsheet but it’s chock full of information related to revenues and expenditures and fertile ground (IMHO) for identifying POTENTIAL Areas where our county tends to spend more than other counties for similar functions.

    Here’s the categories on that file:

    Exhibit A General Government
    Exhibit B Local Revenue
    Exhibit B-1 Inter-Governmental Revenue
    Exhibit B-2 Other Local Taxes
    Exhibit C Summary of Maintenance and Operation Expenditures
    Exhibit C-1 General Government Administration Expenditures by Activity
    Exhibit C-2 Judicial Administration Expenditures by Activity
    Exhibit C-3 Public Safety Expenditures by Activity
    Exhibit C-4 Public Works Expenditures by Activity
    Exhibit C-5 Health and Welfare Expenditures by Activity
    Exhibit C-6 Education Expenditures by Activity
    Exhibit C-7 Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Expenditures by Activity
    Exhibit C-8 Community Development Expenditures by Activity
    Exhibit D Activity Expenditures by Object Class
    Exhibit E Capital Projects for General Government
    Exhibit F Debt Service for General Government
    Exhibit G Summary of Outstanding Debt
    Exhibit H Summary of Enterprise Activities
    Exhibit I Demographic and Tax Data

  • http://MAVRICKinc7@msn.com Martin (Marty) Work

    With all this information at Larry’s finger tips, how is it that anyone would question how Spotsylvania County would have arrived at their bottom line budgets, based on their bean counting methodoligy.

    The only reason DJ and Steve’s budget observations never made it to the podium was the fact the County had necessary information, from which to make informed decisions, that are not made available for public inspection.

    The County BOS used to have a Budget Committee that worked from the INSIDE, but eliminated them because the Committee knew what they were doing and the BOS couldn’t bring themselves to share this information with anyone else but themselves. No oversight, no transparency, no accountability.

    All we’re left to do is speculate as Larry leads us around by the nose from one website to the next and making more excuses why WE should’t have to know anything about how Spotsylvania County conducts business for its citizens, other than from a huge EXCEL SPREADSHEET that lines everyone up with a number that can be reduced to a percentage, mode, median and placed somewhere on a bell curve. Maybe this is how Larry measures quality of life, business ethics and best business practices that can’t be seen by the public without a discovery warrant in hand.

    Simply said, all Larry wants is for us to stop asking questions falling outside a spread sheet mentality, for want of knowing that the SUM of anything consist of all it parts, not just the selected few who manage and control play on the board from behind closed doors.

    Just how many DETOURS are we expected to make just to get back from where Larry started out, and no farther ahead than we were 10 years ago?

  • http://rightwingliberal.wordpress.com/ D.J. McGuire

    Larry (and Marty),

    My “run out of town on a rail” line was a reference to me run for Supe last year, not the budget discussion of this past spring. Guess I was too clever by half on that one.

    As for the data, most of it is no better than what the county presented to the public. The rest doesn’t provide nearly the detail required. By acticity-based-cost, I mean *within* departments and bureaus, not across them (as some of the later sheet show). PW and Fairfax, while not perfect, are closer to what I think we need down here in terms of budget info.

  • http://rightwingliberal.wordpress.com/ D.J. McGuire

    Should be “my run for Supe”, not “me run for Supe.” Grrrr.

  • dtelvock

    DJ,

    I have been a reporter in four different jurisdictions in Virginia and I have never seen a budget that was easily understood, void of jargon and confusing terms. The larger the locality, the more information is presented. That seems to be the rule of thumb, and I believe that is because the demand from voters grows with the locality,

    Spotsylvania County’s finance staff are an award-winning group and they can quickly answer any question I have ever had. But when the budget comes out, it is filled with a lot of lingo and information that the general person will not understand.

    Unfortunately, that is where I come in. I have to turn these confusing documents into plain common sense. I am thankful that the county finance staff has no problems answering questions because I’d be hurting without their help. I have not always succeeded, but I do try.

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