Paul Rilling: Following the money
Oct 03, 2013 | 3600 views |  0 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A government budget may look like a gray mass of dull statistics, but it is the best guide there is to the plans and priorities of that government. The normal way for the news media to report a budget is to show readers how much money is involved, the different sources of income, and how the money will be spent. How much for law enforcement, roads, education and other government services? How does the budget differ from last year’s, larger or smaller? Have the priorities changed?

The people have a right to understand the budget. After all, it is their money.

The Star has made little effort to explain the 2014 budgets local governments have adopted. The September story reporting the adoption of a $50 million budget by the Calhoun County Commission said that just $15.8 million is the core budget administered by the commission. The other $34.2 million is pass-through money over which the commission has no control. An example is state and federal highway funds. The story by Brian Anderson did not list the other funds involved.

County Administrator Ken Joiner was quoted as saying the only major change from the 2013 budget was the cost-of-living pay increase for county employees. How much will that cost? The reference to the 2013 budget was meaningless without any description of that budget (Sept. 27, Page 5A).

There were two stories about the $35 million 2014 budget adopted by the Anniston City Council, Sept. 11 and Sept. 25, both by Paige Rentz. The stories reported disagreements among council members over some items and expenditures added to the proposed budget prepared by city staff. Reporting changes to the staff budget meant little to readers without a review of that document. There was no breakdown of income sources. The only mentions of expenditures were concerned with education funding, Anniston Municipal Golf Course, the Carver pool and a 1 percent increase in employees’ pay.

The Sept. 11 article reported that the council approved an application to the Appalachian Regional Commission for a $200,000 grant for renovations to the Victoria Inn to match an additional $200,000 from the city. The Star has carried a number of stories about the Victoria. They have left some unanswered questions. Among them: How much are the annual operating costs? How much money did the Victoria make or lose in recent years? What is its occupancy rate? That information should be available about a facility operated by a public university.

Questions about schools

In September, The Star gave prominent display to a community mail survey of the views of Anniston residents about the city’s public schools. The survey was paid for by The Star and conducted by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Jacksonville State University. The story on the survey results, by Tim Lockette, illustrated by pie charts in color, took up half of the front page (Sept. 22). The story referred to the results as showing the views of “Anniston residents,” but the low response rate of about 5 percent makes that wording questionable. It is difficult to claim that the answers of 5 percent of Anniston residents are valid for the total population. Certainly, the opinions of 581 city residents are meaningful, but they could be more accurately described as the views of “those responding,” rather than those of “Anniston residents.”

Update on the Democrats

According to an analysis of the 2014 strategy of the Alabama Democratic Party, by Lockette, the Democratic hopes are modest and focused on capturing several north Alabama state Senate districts that would dilute the Republicans’ supermajority in the Senate. At least that is the vision of Mark Kennedy, former state Democratic chairman who now heads the Alabama Democratic Majority. The prime target is Senate District 13, a nearby northeast Alabama district held by longtime incumbent Gerald Dial.

The story was interesting but had problems. The primary focus was that state Senate race, but there was no interview with Democratic challenger Darrell Turner. According to the story, “attempts to reach Turner…were unsuccessful Friday.” The story ran Sunday. Turner is a primary figure in the story. Was it reasonable to run the story without his contribution?

The story said Kennedy was “sent packing” by the State Democratic Executive Committee. According to Kennedy, he resigned the post. What was the source for The Star’s report? If Kennedy was fired, at what committee meeting and by what vote?

According to both Democratic factions, the financial problems of the party go back to 1999 when the party borrowed money to help pay for the state lottery campaign of then-Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman. How much did the party borrow? Has the debt finally been paid off? (Sept. 1, 1A).

Paul Rilling is a retired former editor at The Star.
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