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County gets good grade for letting taxpayers see how money is spent

Halifax County received a B on its report card grading how good county officials are at letting taxpayers see how their money is spent.

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government determined the county rated a B after examining its website along with conducting a comprehensive survey of websites of all 134 independent cities and counties in the state.

Out of a total score of 50, Halifax County received a 42.

Grades of other neighboring counties included a C for Campbell County with a score of 34, a D for Charlotte County with a score of 29, a B for Danville which also had a score of 42, a B+ for Pittsylvania County with a score of 44 and an F for Mecklenburg County with a score of 0.

The report assesses and grades the performance of counties and cities in providing easy online access to local government’s fundamental operating document: its annual budget.

The open government coalition said it hopes these report cards lead to many conversations between local governments and citizens.

“The Virginia Coalition for Open Government can tell you that in King George County it takes six clicks of a mouse to get to this fiscal year’s current operating budget. It takes five in Norfolk, four in Tazewell County, three in Harrisonburg, two in Amelia County and just one in Manassas. Unfortunately, in 26 localities, no amounts of clicks would reach a current budget because none was posted,” according to Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

The report entitled, “How Many Clicks Does It Take To Get To Your Budget” also surveyed localities for how easy it was to find and follow each click to the budget.

They gathered the data and then asked 10 basic questions of each site. Based on the answers to each of these questions, they came up with a grade for each county.

The first three questions had to do with finding a budget document.

The first question asked was “How many clicks does it take to get to a budget document?”

The second question asked, “Do the hyperlink labels for the clicks use the word ‘budget?’”

“If a citizen didn’t know exactly how the government is structured, how easy is it to navigate the clicks?” was another question asked.

Next, the questions were about assessing what sort of budget document was found and how useful it would be to an ordinary citizen.

Higher scores were given to those localities that presented the budget in its entirety in one document.

The next logical question was “How useful is the budget document?”

Then the survey questioned whether the current budget was available in the first page of search results from a homepage search box.

More points were given to localities with links to past fiscal year budgets.

In the last two questions, they asked about some good government options to the budget process, giving credit and extra credit for attempts to actively engage and inform citizens.

Points were received for the following:

w having a citizen comment platform for the existing budget;

w explaining the budget process;

w providing a calendar for the process;

w offering CDs of the budget free of charge;

w including links to the future budget; and/or

w comparisons with neighboring localities.

The City of Fairfax garnered the highest score and earned the only A+ awarded.

A total of 17 other localities earned an A or A- including the counties of Bedford, Caroline, Dinwiddie, Fairfax, Fluvanna, Franklin, Hanover, James City, Lancaster, Northampton, Orange, Shenandoah and York and the cities of Franklin, Fredericksburg, Manassas and Waynesboro.

On the other end of the spectrum, 26 localities received an F grade, with 15 of those having no budget data at all.

They included the counties of Alleghany, Bath, Buchanan, Craig, Giles, Grayson, Greensville, Highland, Lee, Lunenburg and Mecklenburg and the cities of Covington, Emporia, Galax and Norton.

The 11 others receiving a failing grade did so because they did not make a current budget available, the report stated.

Those 11 included the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Essex, Greene, Henry, Louisa, Middlesex, Nottoway, Prince Edward and Sussex and the city of Hopewell.

The localities receiving the failing grades tend to be among the smallest localities in the state, the report surmised.

 “It is our hope that localities and citizens will use the report as a platform from which to launch a discussion about how best to present the budget and other important public records,” Rhyne said.