It’s a daunting task for most of us to get our heads around city and county budgets, much less participate meaningfully in their creation.
We made a pretty big mistake in our November 3 story on the Dane County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO) budget. Originally, we published the budget for just the DCSO administration; after a reader reached out and let us know (thank you!) we changed it so the numbers are correct now.
We should have known better, but to be fair to us, the DCSO budget document doesn’t include a page laying out the total budget. The reader who let us know about the error added up the numbers from different departments to come up with their own number. I do not trust myself with that kind of math, so instead we had to go to two different documents—the compilation of requests from different departments for 2023 and the final 2022 budget—just to get three numbers: how much DCSO requested for 2022, how much it received in the final budget, and how much it is requesting this year.
Normally there’s at least a budget introduction giving those numbers and an overview of what has changed and why. Which could be seen as a minor detail, but it’s not. As journalists, we should have known better but a layperson who has never followed the budget before doesn’t know the scale of personnel and tax dollars put towards a sheriff’s office—or any government office, for that matter.
Even in a best-case scenario, where all the information is plainly written in black and white, the learning curve and time commitment to understand, much less analyze, a county or city budget is immense. Budgets are hundreds of pages of numbers, sometimes tied to undefined terms or acronyms. The discussions are spread across hours of mind-numbing hearings, among some people who already know the acronyms and terms and throw them around readily, and probably some others who are uncomfortable with asking for them to be defined.
If you’ve managed to wrap your head around that budget, analyzing one year’s budget doesn’t give you context; you need to go back to previous years to figure out what changed and why in order to get the full story.
That is the role journalism can play, particularly asking questions and putting decisions into context. But newsrooms continue to be stretched thin, with news outlets asking reporters to do more with less. Municipal reporters are incentivized to churn out a bunch of quick hits and then move on, instead of diving into the details.
And where there are gaps in information and education, misinformation and conspiracy theories thrive. It’s in municipalities’ interest to make their budgets and budget decisions as transparent as possible.
But another issue is the budget process itself. Even if a layperson manages to do all the research and contextualizing in the time period between when a budget is introduced and when it passes, the truth is that once a budget is proposed, very little of it changes during the hearing process. There may be some fine-tuning or political maneuvering of funds or positions through amendments, but that is mostly along the edges. The bulk of the budget remains untouched.
How can we engage the public in the budgeting process, in the decisions about where their tax dollars are going and why? Not just during budget season, but all year long? And how do we do this in a way that is constructive? Where voices advocating for the valuable investments in communities and the public good don’t get stuck in shouting matches with people who, say, don’t believe libraries or public health departments should exist?
If municipalities and representatives take these questions seriously, the result could be a budgeting process and budget that everyone could be proud of.