For the first time in history, Schuylkill County government has posted its annual budget on the county website.
The PDF file of the budget was uploaded earlier this week. It’s a 70-page document that’s covered at the top with an encapsulated look at the property tax rates. That page ends with a bit of propaganda from the government, letting people know it’s the 4th consecutive year without a tax increase.
However, to pass this budget, the County had to dip into a reserve fund to find more than $4 million to make up a shortfall. And prior to the introduction of the preliminary budget in November, County officials admitted they’d already made a round of cuts from their initial spending plan.
Also inside the budget, people will find a few charts showing balances of expenses and revenues. Then comes a dizzying array of numbers, breaking down the budgeted totals from county agencies and offices.
Schuylkill County Government Posts 2022 Budget Online
This really isn’t about the budget, itself, however. (You can download or view the 2022 Schuylkill County government budget below.)
Getting to this point – meaning, getting the budget (a document that should always be readily available to the public) online – was a real struggle.
It took increasing pressure not only from The Canary and our aggressive pursuit of the document but also persistent nagging of the County Commissioners and Courthouse administration. Leading the way on that were people like Jeff Dunkel, of Palo Alto, and Clerk of Courts Maria Casey. They continually peppered the board on a weekly basis to make the budget more accessible.
Finally, the County said it would post the budget on its website but it took weeks to do so. And it didn’t appear on the site until after it was passed.
The whole point of making the budget available for public inspection prior to it being approved by the Commissioners is to give the public a chance to question it.
So, while it’s fine that the budget was posted online, the whole point was missed.
The Struggle Was Real
This is hardly a reason for anyone at the Courthouse to pat themselves on the back. For an administration that claims it’s striving to be more transparent, its reaction to such a simple request and an easy show of transparency turned into a farce.
This unnecessary fight started when we asked the Commissioners office for a digital copy of the proposed 2022 Schuylkill County budget. Surprisingly, we were told to fill out a Right to Know form and go through that process.
Again, this is a document that’s required by law to be available to the public.
But if we or anyone wanted to see a copy of that proposed budget, we’d have to haul ourselves to the Courthouse in Pottsville and sit all day in the Commissioners office to view it.
Technically, that’s all the County is required to do and luckily for them, they excel at providing a minimal amount of transparency.
But this wasn’t just about providing the bare minimum in transparency with regard to open records. Rather than comply with our request after we submitted the Right to Know form via email, the Courthouse made us wait the full 5 days to respond. Again, the bare minimum.
In that response however, was a blatant lie or just a game no one up there should have time to play.
The County said it needed more time, possibly until after Christmas, to review our request to see the budget. Open records laws in Pennsylvania provide the government with a 30-day extension to fully respond to Right to Know requests. But to get that extension, the government must provide a reason for the extension. And that’s where we spotted a lie.
Well, either a lie, a sign of gross incompetence, or a show of vindictiveness from the Courthouse’s legal department.
The third reason the County said it needed more time to respond in full was to check if our request was covered under open records laws. It certainly is and they have to know this. If they don’t, it’s time to leave the Courthouse.
So why lie? It’s concerning to know the County has time to play games like this.
The Full Budget?
We finally got our copy of the preliminary 2022 budget a few days after the County said it might need 30 days to fulfill our request. An article we published a day prior to getting the budget in a PDF email attachment may have helped finally get the ball rolling on that.
But did what we get actually match our request? Initially, we were told the preliminary budget was about 120 pages long. What we got was 56 pages, less than half of what we expected.
No explanation has ever been given on why we received a truncated version of the document we requested.
And this finalized budget is just 70 pages. Does that mean the County is hiding about 50 pages from the public?
The Hidden Budget
Even in posting the 2022 budget to the County website, the Courthouse just can’t be blatantly transparent.
The budget file isn’t exactly jumping off the page. To find it, you’ll have to do a bit of navigating. If you go to the site to find it, you’ll have to navigate to the What’s New menu. And in that menu, you have to go to December 21 submenu where you’ll find a link to the budget file.
Posting it clearly and visibly on the homepage should have been the goal. Perhaps it could replace the giant links on that site that tell you how to register for a mail-in ballot.
A Mountain Out of a Mole Hill
Again, this was such a simple, ordinary request. But people at the Courthouse apparently enjoy turning nothing into something, even if that something hurts them.