Real News

 Annual Reports Share County Financial Info and More

 

“How do you spend my property tax dollars?”

“Who is my county commissioner?”

“What’s the county’s tax rate?”

“What county road projects were completed last year?”

Texans across the state ask county officials and staff a host of common questions such as these. Creative initiatives by Williamson, Potter and Bell counties answer them, through reader-friendly annual reports.

All three provide local government transparency and help educate county residents about how county government works and how their tax dollars are spent. 

Counties that are considering producing something similar can learn from each unique publication.Photo-1-Ashlie-Koenig.gif
 
Williamson County's "Budget in Brief"

Ashlie Koenig, Williamson County budget officer, said the county’s “Budget in Brief” aims to deliver a snapshot of information to address taxpayers’ most frequently asked questions that’s easy to understand and “easy on the eye.”

The tri-fold brochure includes statistics about the fast-growing county, including its population trends, unemployment rate, median household income and average home value. 

County government details presented include the number of county employees, an organization chart of elected and appointed county officials, the names of commissioners court members and a map of county precincts.

Colorful charts, bar graphs and data tables present financial information showing where the county gets its revenue and how it spends those funds, including a pie chart that illustrates the various functions of its more than 1,600 employees (public safety, judicial, etc.). A brief description of the budget process is accompanied by an illustrated timeline and an overview of how the county’s funds are allocated in the current budget. 

One of the report’s graphics illustrates the average property taxes paid by a Williamson County resident and what proportions are distributed to school districts, the city of Georgetown and the county.

An additional chart tracks Williamson County’s tax rate over 11 years, and a table provides a comparison of the last three years of the county’s revenue by source.

Koenig said the brochure, which the county has produced for about six years, is slightly tweaked each year in response to feedback from officials and the public. Over time, they’ve been able to add historical data to compare data and trends.

Photo-2-Comm.Valerie-Covey.gifThe first year, Koenig printed 500 copies, which were distributed within a few months. The print run is now double that to meet demand. “Our commissioners court members said when they hand these out (at presentations) the public loves them,” Koenig said. “It’s really been a great thing for the county. It gives us the opportunity to put out valuable information.”

Koenig now supplies the Georgetown Public Library with copies and hopes to have enough available to stock other libraries across the county.

Williamson County Commissioner Valerie Covey said that she distributes the brochure whenever she speaks to groups and refers to it during her presentations. “It’s well received,” she said. “I think it’s very valuable for a citizen.

“Most people don’t know what county government does,” Covey said. “They don’t know how county government is organized, how many employees we have, how big our county is. We’re trying to get people interested in what we do and what their tax dollars are paying for.”

The "Potter County Annual Report"

PHoto-4--Comm-Mercy-Murguia.gifA few years ago, Potter County Commissioner Mercy Murguia boarded a Southwest Airlines flight and began flipping through a brochure that was in the seat pocket in front of her. The pamphlet’s concise writing and graphics explained the important parts of the plane. That sparked her imagination.

“I thought it would be a really neat idea to translate this to county government,” she said. “We could give people an inside look.”

Last year, during half a dozen meetings, she, other county officials and department heads collaborated to produce copy, data and graphics for a brochure; the county enlisted the services of a graphic designer and the “Potter County Annual Report” was born.

The four-page report includes an overview of the commissioners court, briefly details the duties of the county judge and commissioners and includes photos of each. It also provides concise descriptions of 11 county offices, from the Community Supervision and Corrections Department to the District Clerk’s Office. Each department drafted its own description. Text was kept short so print could be large and easy to read.

Illustrations of the county’s numerous facilities also point out the location of each department. 

Photo-5--Potter-County-Judge-Nancy-Tanner.png“The report shows people where everyone is and who to call for what they need,” said Potter County Judge Nancy Tanner. “It’s a helpful tool for the public.” 

Colorful graphics present Potter County’s demographics, a breakdown of how the property taxes it collects are distributed, and show county revenue and how funds are spent. Tables on the back page present additional condensed financial information.

“The idea was to help supplement the information we already have out there,” Murguia said. The county provides copies of its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, as well as utility reports, check registers, debt information and more on its website. “The idea

 was two-fold – to continue our transparency efforts for constituents, and to have a people-friendly version of the financials.” 

The report was designed as a template, so the county can annually update the information easily.

“It’s important for the taxpayers to know what we’re doing with their money and this is just one of the ways we can do that,” added County Auditor Kerry Hood.

The "Bell County Road and Bridge Annual Report"

PHoto-8-Bryan-Neaves.gifThis publication from the Bell County Road and Bridge Department packs a lot of information into 14 pages. 

Text, charts, tables and photos report on the department’s projects, spending, safety records and more. Readers learn about new construction, reconstruction and road-widening projects, and the county’s interlocal agreements with other government entities for road work. The document also highlights specific staff and their accomplishments during the year.

The publication outlines (among other things) time and labor costs for mowing, vegetation management, sign maintenance, pipe installation and repairs, and the material costs for each county precinct.

In addition, each new piece of equipment purchased is highlighted with a photo and summary of its features and purchase price.

County Engineer Bryan Neaves said he works with his department to determine the activities they’ll report on. They use Cartegraph to collect and filter data for the report. Data is tracked daily, then compiled, evaluated and double-checked for accuracy at the end of the year when producing the report.

“A report of this quality takes time,” Neaves said. “My staff enjoys being challenged. It builds their knowledge of our operation and makes them see ways to improve our department.”

Photo-9--Judge-H.-Burrows.gifThe county makes the publication available online and in print.

“We are on the unit system, so we have a county engineer and unified equipment and crews,” said Bell County Judge Jon H. Burrows. “The unit system requires us to work together. An annual plan is the result of that cooperation. More than likely each county has such a plan, though it may be more informal. However, the information is there. Making it available keeps the public informed, but also keeps the court engaged in being sure the plan is always up to date.” 

Neaves said he considered the report a tool officials can use to show their constituents how the county serves them. 

“We want to accurately supply information about the funds used on our road system,” said Neaves. “People can have confidence that we are wisely spending funds to maintain a system of roads if they can see how we’re addressing maintenance issues.”

“It is an excellent product that we are proud to make available to the public,” Burrows said. “The taxpayers can see how the road and bridge funds are earmarked to be spent, and can see the long-range plan to maintain and improve all county roads.”

7Tips.gif

 

 Feature Stories

 
 

 News & Columns