San Mateo County officials agree with a civil grand jury that more transparency and highlighting key factors in the budget could make its financial reporting easier for the public to digest.
County Manager John Maltbie said as much in the official Board of Supervisor response to the June report “San Mateo County Financial Reporting: Toward Clarity and Transparency.” Grand jury reports carry no legal weight but recipients are required to respond in writing within 90 days. The Board of Supervisors will formally approve the response at its Tuesday meeting.
But while the county is under no obligation to implement the jury’s recommendations, Maltbie wrote that some will be fully or partially put in place. A few are deemed infeasible and Maltbie even points to the county’s own moves toward greater transparency like an online “open checkbook” where the public can see any transaction of payments greater than $5,000.
The jury concluded that the county’s finances are way too large and complicated for easy understanding by the general public. The fiscal year 2013 budget is 336 pages long, detailing $1.9 billion appropriated over approximately 1,200 separate financial accounts. The controller’s comprehensive report is about half the length and the popular version condenses that further to 10 pages. However, the jury felt that key information was left out to understand what the financial documents mean.
The jury recommended a list of changes it said would help like inclusion in financial documents of total employee compensation and the annual costs of pension liability. Maltbie said both will be implemented.
The recommendation to include excess property taxes and other one-time revenue will be partially implemented in the recommended budget book but not the adopted one because the state controller’s guidelines do not call for it. The same goes for recommendations like breaking down the budget amount per San Mateo County resident and listing the 10 largest county expenses by category and department.
However, Maltbie also noted that, depending on staff resources, the accepted recommendations may not be put in place for the upcoming budget cycle.
The jury’s recommendation to list the total payments to county contractors aside from those making capital improvements was not as welcome.
The recommended and adopted budget books are final plans and policy documents, not a way to detail the prior year’s activity, Maltbie wrote in his response.
The full grand jury report is available at www.sanmateocourt.org/grandjury.
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