On the buffet that is a daily newspaper, reporting about government budgets is akin to those unwanted vegetables that turned your nose as a kid.
Think of terms like “fiscal year,” “capital outlay,” “fund balance” and “revenue neutral” as broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Not very appealing, short on enjoyment, pretty bland, definitely boring.
But like eating vegetables, reading about government budgets is probably good for you.
Boring, but good.
After all, taxpayers should understand as fully as possible what local government is spending and more importantly, how elected leaders are making decisions about it. From the outside, it’s terribly easy to play armchair quarterback about departmental cuts and scaling back services — especially when armed with very few facts.
Trying to present government budgets to readers in digestible chunks, however, has been a long-standing challenge for newspapers. But at least we do try. TV long ago abandoned any hope of presenting anything about a government budget beyond visible protests about it. Gotta have that B roll.
But beyond a few shouts, there are very few numbers to see when TV takes on the job.
How we handle it hasn’t always been much better. Using 50 inches of gray space for a story that’s guaranteed to be disjointed and dull hasn’t worked for decades. Readers continued to wince and make faces just like I used to when my mother put turnip greens in front of me at dinner.
Over the past few years we’ve tinkered with our formats where the Alamance County and Burlington budgets are concerned. We try to break down the information into smaller stories with accompanying graphics or charts. Much of the information is easily obtainable from either the county or city — or other government agencies.
This year we decided to provide as much detail as possible about the county’s budget numbers with accompanying facts, definitions and observations. At the moment, budgets on all levels of government are undergoing more scrutiny from readers than ever before. That’s especially true when it comes to the county figures. Manager Craig Honeycutt is planning to recommend a tax increase and many on the board have indicated that such a move might not be out of the question. We’re not talking about a big-spending group here. If they think a tax increase might be possible, then the situation has to be pretty dire.
Sunday and Monday we produced a huge chunk of budget information about the county. We included its historic and current spending, revenues, cuts and use of its rainy day savings. We showed how the tax rate compares to other counties. We looked at department requests. There are several more items among the graphics compiled by reporter Chris Lavender and constructed by our in-house graphics designer and artist Linda Bowden. All, hopefully, put together in a visually appealing way and in a format readers can keep and consult over the next couple of months as commissioners meet to talk about the numbers.
I know it’s a lot of information to process all at once but we wanted to give readers all the facts they might need so they in turn can let the county Board of Commissioners know how they feel about what might be ahead.
We were pretty happy with how the series turned out — with thanks to Linda and Chris for making it happen. Hopefully, it was nourishing, and a little more appealing than the usual plain ol’ broccoli.