Last week, we asked Schuylkill County Commissioners why they won’t show the public their “bottom.”
Well, they said no other Commissioners have shown the “bottom” to the public and it doesn’t sound like these guys are going to be the first ones to do it.
One of the Commissioners worried people would always be critiquing it.
Confused? You won’t be …
$1.6 Million Budget Adjustments Approved by Schuylkill County Commissioners
Last week, Schuylkill County Commissioners approved more than $1.6 million in adjustments to their 2023 budget.
And like has happened so many times in the past, the first time the public learned the details of those budget adjustments was seconds before the vote to approve them.
As we’ve noted countless times, that gives the public zero chance to question, for instance, what the money is being used for, what isn’t getting purchased in order to make these adjustments, or why these adjustments are needed.
Last Thursday, we learned the Commissioners don’t seem too keen on changing this practice.
We also learned why. And the explanation is weak.
“This is the way it’s always been done” is hardly a reason to keep doing things.
First, let’s take a look at what the Commissioners presented to the public a day prior to Thursday’s meeting.
These are the budget adjustments and – we did the math for you – they equal more than $1.6 million. Some of them are big-ticket adjustments.
- MH/DS: $298
- Commissioners Office: $600
- Drug & Alcohol: $651
- Records Management: $2,100
- Prison: $5,000
- Prison: $520,000
- Solid Waste: $6,220
- Treasurer’s Office: $22,850
- Fringe Benefits: $25,000
- District Attorney: $30,000
- Coroner’s Office: $39,500
- Public Works: $189,000
- Office of Senior Services: $842,700
In total, that comes to $1,683,919.
Now, as noted, this money has already been budgeted elsewhere, at least, that’s what they say. And we’ll report details on some of these adjustments in upcoming posts.
For now, we want to focus on this policy that keeps the public in the dark on what these adjustments are until it’s too late to question them.
Just Another Budget Secret at Schuylkill County Courthouse
Since we started covering Schuylkill County Commissioners, we’ve learned that the budget – what your property tax and other money funds – is a big secret.
Remember, we had to file a Right to Know request just to get a copy of a budget that’s supposed to be very publicly accessible and should be posted online on the County’s website.
It is now, but whether the County posts the entire budget for the public is debatable. In order to do that, you’re supposed to visit the Courthouse and view it there.
That’s the absolute bare minimum the County is required to do. They know no one is going to do that. And the folks at the Courthouse are perfectly OK with that.
So, if that’s the Courthouse’s big secret, consider these budget adjustments and the willing lack of transparency to be a bunch of little secrets. And they’re really unnecessary.
We Want to See Their “The Bottom”
After Thursday’s meeting, we asked Commissioners Gary Hess and Boots Hetherington why the public can’t have the same access they have, ahead of a vote on these adjustments.
We’re sure there’s a document explaining them and that could be posted online with the meeting agendas. When the Commissioners are considering them, County Finance Director Paul Buber tells Commissioners “an explanation of these adjustments is on the bottom.”
“The bottom” we presume, is something on the bottom of the meeting agenda. Sometimes, Buber will say the information is included in the Commissioners’ packet they get prior to meetings.
Now, we don’t want to violate the County’s Consent Decree with the US Dept. of Justice, but we want to see “the bottom.”
So, why can’t we see it?
Hess told us, “It’s just been the process.”
Hetherington gave us a similar answer.
“From what I understand, that’s been the policy,” he said.
If this truly is a policy, it’s a bad one and needs to change. But it’s par on their course of budgetary disclosures. (Note: We haven’t even gotten into what the Commissioners require the Treasurer to report – or not report – once a month.)
Hetherington added something disturbing about this process, too. He said he basically finds out about these budget adjustments when the rest of the public does.
Of course, that doesn’t stop him from voting to approve them 100% of the time and he’s not exactly begging for answers to questions he has on them either.
“I see them the day before. They don’t come to me,” he added.
The Commissioners Chairman admitted he got a copy of the paper – “the bottom” as it were – the morning of the meeting on Thursday.
Hetherington then tried blaming COVID for wrecking the process. He said department heads used to come to Work Session meetings to present proposals for budget adjustments and the Commissioners would approve them the following week at regular board meetings.
While it’s true that used to be the way things worked with Commissioners public meetings, it doesn’t apply here.
Thursday’s meeting was proof of that. It was a regular board meeting and this was the first time these budget adjustments were presented to the Commissioners and the public.
Will We Ever See Their “Bottom”?
We’d be fooling ourselves if we think this policy or process is going to change, at least not with the Commissioners that are currently assembled.
Neither Hess or Hetherington seemed open to changing it.
“I can try to have that conversation to change that,” Hess said.
But don’t pin your hopes on Hess being able to have that conversation. We’ve seen numerous times that he’s been kept in the dark on things among the Commissioners.
If you want proof that this so-called policy won’t change, check out what Hetherington had to say to our request to publish “the bottom” online.
“I don’t know what benefit it would be,” he said.
We told him that people want to see these explanations and be able to question them, if necessary.
First, Hetherington said, “I’ll ask.”
If only he, the Chariman of the Commissioners, knew someone he could ask. Sigh.
He then said Buber is the one that doesn’t want to release the information.
“Paul’s been reluctant to do that,” Hetherington said, as if it’s Buber’s or Hetherington’s own personal accounting data we’re asking to see.
Why is it an unelected official’s call on what budgetary information is released to the public? And why is Hetherington – again, the Chairman – deferring power to one of his subordinates?
Finally, Hetherington offered to show us “the bottom” on the morning of meetings.
We asked, “Why can’t you post that online? People just want to know.”
Hetherington replied, “They want to critique.”
And that’s as right as he’s ever been.