Tuesday, September 23

THE DC BUDGET: HIDING THE NUMBERS

DC Fiscal Policy Institute, Hill Rag - The most basic question you would look to the budget to answer is: "How much are we spending on Program X." Yet astonishingly enough, one of the hardest things to do in the DC budget is to track funding for programs and services . . . .

Take the Summer Youth Employment Program. . . Despite its prominence, the DC budget does not show how much was spent on the SYEP in prior years or how much is budgeted for next year. That's because it is bundled together with several other programs into a "Youth Programs" line item. The problem, of course, is that there is no way to follow the money for any particular program.

This is compounded by the fact that DC's budget has almost no narrative to tell readers what is in these bundled line items. You probably could figure out that the summer jobs program is in "Youth Programs," but the budget doesn't actually say it. Without descriptions, it is difficult for readers to even find where a program they care about shows up in the budget.

Other examples of nowhere programs abound. The Metropolitan Police Department's website lists dozens of special units, like the Latino Liason Unit, but none of these show up in the budget. Some $140 million of the $189 million budget for the Fire and Emergency Services Department shows up in one line item - "Fire/Rescue Operations." Want to know how much we spend on recycling or alley paving? You won't find it in the DC budget. . .

Take the Summer Youth Employment Program again. The budget doesn't identify how many teens have participated in recent years or other meaningful measures, such as the share that do not show up to their assigned job. The only measure offered is "the percent of youth referred to employment." What does that tell you?

Other places do this much better. New York City and Prince William County, Va., for example, publish entire volumes devoted to measurement of government performance. This of course makes oversight and accountability a lot easier.

DC's Top Secret Funds Ever wonder what happens to the fees and fines you pay for things like getting your car inspected or ordering another Supercan? Often, these types of payments go into "special purpose" accounts that are then used for specific purposes. These accounts support many valuable services, such as loans to low-income first-time homebuyers.

Special purpose funds are not an insignificant part of the DC budget either; in FY 2009, there are 178 of them, spread throughout many agencies, with revenues of $484 million.

The DC budget provides little information on these funds, however, making oversight tricky to say the least. There is no easy way to find out the purpose of each fund, how much money it will have each year, which programs it will support and the level of services it will provide.

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