You are the ‘u’ in public budget process

Editorial voice of the Chieftain

One of the popular catch phrases that arose out of Watergate in the ‘70s was “follow the money.” Back then, it generally referred to the attempts by Pres. Richard M. Nixon to “buy” whatever he wanted, including elections.

Here’s another way to think about it. Each June, taxing entities across Wallowa County engage in a process to create a budget or spending plan for the coming year. A good way to know what is going to be accomplished –– or perhaps not accomplished –– can be determined by following the money.

If it’s not in the budget, you can bet it’s not going to happen.

The idea of budget-setting from the beginning was that taxpayers would take conscientious notice of how a county, city, school district or special district proposed to spend its money, and that would be part of the checks and balances of the American system.

Somewhere along the line, most of us became too lazy and apathetic to care a great deal about who was spending what, as long as our sacred cow wasn’t on the auction block.

Public notices advertising budget hearings are generally greeted with a corporate yawn. It’s not unusual for only one or two members of the public to show up for these sessions.

Then along comes a year when revenues are short and decisions must be made to present a balanced budget. Left with little or no public input, the elected officials in charge of the process do their best to craft solutions. Most of the options are not popular.

When taxpayers complain, it’s generally pointed out to them that the budget process is conducted in a public forum, and they were conspicuous by their absence.

While that statement is true, it’s a bit like slapping someone in the face to tell them how much you appreciate them.

Elected officials can help constituents discover and engage in the budget process by being proactive as it begins to unfold. A public education process would go a long way.

Reaching out to key constituency groups who may be interested in the negotiations could be effective. Conducting evening or Saturday hearings might broaden the base of participation as not everyone is able to leave work for a mid-morning weekday gathering.

We recognize that the Chieftain could do a better job of getting ahead of the information curve when budget season approaches. There needs to be a broader commitment to covering the budget process for all public entities before it begins. Public officials need to be more willing to discuss budget options in preparing those stories, rather than asking us to wait for the ink to dry on the budget document before commenting and explaining their choices.

And yes, the public needs to do its part by showing a much greater fiduciary responsibility.

Most budgets need to be approved and submitted by June 30. That’s not a lot of time to make an impact for this year, but that’s not a reason to sit this one out.

A good step forward would be to plan to attend the hearing on the future of the Wallowa County Library 10 a.m. Tuesday, June 13, at the Wallowa County Courthouse.

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