February 16, 2006

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if I was a greedy newspaper publisher? Well, if you listen to proponents of House Bill 1028, it might seem as if newspapers are simply out for money. The industry has come out in opposition of the proposed legislation that would eliminate the requirement for 2nd, 3rd and 4th class counties to publish a detailed financial statement annually in the local newspaper.

Bottom line is, if passed, House Bill 1028 will cost newspapers money. If the county chooses not to print its detailed financial statement, and instead prints a limited balance statement such as the City of Memphis is allowed to do, it will mean a decline in revenue for the newspaper of as much as $1,400.

Thatís a lot of money, so itís easy to say that all I care about is the annual check when the newspaper indicates its opposition to House Bill 1028. When I argue the public needs to know where its tax dollars are being spent, you all may still have that $1,400 figure in the back of your heads. Ask yourself, ďDoes he really care about accountability and our right to know, or is he simply worried about his bottom line?Ē

Itís okay, I asked myself the same question. In an effort to understand the other side of this issue, I contacted the bill sponsor, Representative Robert T. Johnson of Jackson County with the idea that maybe he would make me see the true reason for proposing such legislation.

Let me preface this commentary by stating there are obviously huge differences between Memphis and Kansas City. Johnsonís District is south of Leeís Summit and contains seven times as many people as we have here in Scotland County. Missouriís First District encompasses five counties, while Jackson County itself consists of 19 different representative districts for its 659,723 residents. So obviously there are some differences.

I was going to argue that one of those underlying differences was newspaper readership. I donít think Iím bragging when I say that a majority of folks that live in Scotland County either take the newspaper, have the opportunity to read someone elseís or are involved in regular discussions with those who do read the news. This means that the newspaper is a logical (and I would argue affordable) way to get information to the public.

I got the impression that Johnson didnít believe that was the case in Jackson County. The City of Lee Summit, a big part of his district, has a weekly newspaper that has a circulation of just 4,823 in a town of more than 82,000. However, the Kansas City Star does serve the area with a circulation of more than 440,000. Maybe it wasnít readership that was at issue, but just the idea that people did not pay attention to the financial statements in the newspaper. I donít know.

Representative Johnson indicated the underlying factor for his decision to sponsor the bill for the third attempt at passage (it has failed the past two years) was fairness. He stated that it is not fair that only certain political subdivisions are required to publish detailed financial statements.

The Missouri Association of Counties (MAC), a major backer of the bill, takes a similar stance.

ďOur organization is supporting HB 1028 as a matter of equity, ď said Dick Burke Executive Director of MAC. ďSecond, Third and Fourth Class counties (97 in total) are the only public entities that are required to publish their financial activities in detailed manner. Schools, cities, the largest counties, and special districts are not.Ē

Being the greedy newspaperman, I jumped on this opportunity and questioned why not make things fair by requiring schools and municipalities to publish detailed financial statements instead of eliminating the countiesí requirements. Man, I could make a bunch of money if the lawmakers would think that it is important for communities to have detailed knowledge of how their schools and city councils are spending tax money.

Jackson even commented that he would be interested in seeing his local schoolís detailed financial statements to know for example how much teachers are being paid.

If we want this issue to be fair, then we should not only be fair to the schools, the cities and the counties, but we should be fair to all of us that pay for the schools and the cities and the counties. I donít think that making this information easily accessible to the community by printing it in the newspaper is being unfair.

What is unfair is allowing these tax-based entities to hide from the public behind legislation that is touting fairness.

But donít forget that the newspaper is not only unfair, but we are greedy too.

ďCost is also a factor obviously and varies widely around the state,Ē Burke stated.

According to the Missouri Press Association, its members charged anywhere from $219 to $6,803 with the average of the 96 publication costs being $1,409.

It costs Scotland County roughly $1,400 a year to print the financial statement in the newspaper. Thatís highway robbery. Or is it?

Stop and consider how much it would cost the county to photocopy 2,300 copies of the 24-page document and mail them directly to these individuals. Maybe that newspaper ad isnít such a bad deal after all. Besides Iím sure the county clerkís office wouldnít hold that many people at one time.

Printing the county financial statement annually represents .000467 percent of the countyís budget each year.

This sparring match has gone on long enough. Itís time for the knockout punch.

This isnít about fairness, nor is it about saving money. (If the MAC wanted to do that it might suggest to counties to stop paying their annual dues to the organization, which costs Scotland County taxpayers more than $500 a year.) This is just one more attempt at hiding government from the people.

There is no fairness in allowing counties (cities or schools for that matter too) to hide their finances. I donít believe that my county commission has anything to hide, nor do most for that matter. Yet, if you donít have anything to hide, how can you, with a straight face try to justify this law by saying, everyone else can hide their records, so itís only fair we should be able to as well.

While I donít believe House Bill 1028 should be passed, I must remind all of these public entities that the laws do not prevent cities, schools and counties from publishing a detailed financial statement, they just simply allow them to print the abridged balance statements. Help the greedy newspaper industry out. Contact your aldermen, your commissioners and your board of education and tell them that itís worth the cost of publication for the constituents to have easy access to their financial statements.

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