Do you know where your tax dollars are being spent? Most Americans have a pretty good idea of where they spent their household disposable income. But when it comes to our tax dollars, it can be hard to find good information.
But thankfully this no longer applies to the Faulkner County Circuit Clerk’s office. It took me less than five minutes to learn that the Circuit Clerk’s office spent a total of $45,111.13 in the months of January and February. $438 of the total January and February expenditures was spent on utilities. $316.77 was paid to Conway Corporation and $121.26 was paid to CenterPoint Energy. A few months ago I would not have been able to easily access this information even for the Circuit Clerk’s office.
What has changed?
In January, Faulkner County Circuit Clerk Crystal Taylor began publishing her office’s monthly expenditures making it easy for residents to see how her office is using tax dollars. This is very encouraging and Faulkner County residents should be excited about this. Consider the benefits that such transparency yields.
A 2017 research synthesis published in the Public Administration Review found that fiscal transparency instills fiscal discipline in the use of public resources. It also reduces corruption. Easy access to fiscal information allows residents to play their role as watchdogs providing the extra scrutiny needed for better management of public resources. Prudent management of resources in turn leads to better delivery of public services.
All other public offices should follow the good example set by the Circuit Clerk’s Office. A 2018 Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) assessment of web-transparency titled “Access Arkansas: County-Level Web Transparency” which I co-authored, gave Faulkner a score of 0.48 on a scale of 0 to 1 which is like scoring 48 percent on an exam.
This lack of fiscal transparency is not specific to Faulkner County. Overall there is a deficiency of web fiscal transparency at the county level in Arkansas. In fact with a score of 0.48 Faulkner county ranks 4th in the state behind Washington, Baxter and Pulaski counties. At the time of the publication of our report only 8 counties had their most current budgets online and only 2 counties had their audited financial statements on their websites. Twenty-seven counties had no financial information online. This lack of transparency makes it difficult for residents to see how elected officials plan to spend tax dollars and, perhaps more importantly, how they actually spend the dollars.
It is encouraging to see the state’s legislature enacted Act 564 that amends the reporting requirement for counties to include publication of financial information, specifically budgets and financial statements, online. Open checkbooks, however, allow residents a detailed look at how the money is actually being spent in real time. The City of Conway launched an open checkbook website in May of 2014 that draws from the state’s own transparency website. A 2016 report by the Public Interest Research Group Education Fund titled “Following the Money” documents the reduction in open-records requests states such as Kansas, Massachusetts, Montana, Washington and South Carolina have experienced as a result of open checkbooks. Fewer requests frees up time for public officials to provide other services and reduces the cost of printing the requested information.
Faulkner County could become a shining light for the rest of Arkansas’s counties by enacting an ordinance to require county officials to publish their monthly spending information online. Ms. Taylor’s efforts show that it can be done. Taxpayers deserve to know how public officials are spending the tax dollars.
Mavuto Kalulu is a Policy Analyst at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Central Arkansas.