Want to save tax money? Keep a close eye on it

State legislatures in Nevada and across the nation are struggling with an apparent dilemma: how to hold down costs, while at the same time making sure taxpayers have ample opportunity to scrutinize government spending.

It doesn’t have to be a quandary. They can do both.

The state’s budget problems are well-known, and city and county officials coming before legislators in Carson City are bemoaning the cuts they are having to make.

One of the ways they propose to save money is by making it more difficult for taxpayers to keep an eye on how local governments conduct their business. Senate Bill 65 would do away with the requirement that cities and counties publish their quarterly financial reports. Instead, it says, taxpayers are welcome to come by City Hall and go through the bills for themselves.

It would, indeed, save money. Carson City, for example, spent $2,338 to publish a notice showing residents how city government had spent $15 million last quarter.

The reason Nevada has had a law on the books the past 70 years is to make sure people knew how their money was being spent. It acts as a deterrent to fraud and abuse. It helps keep government honest.

Common sense tells you: Spend some money now to prevent wasting it later.

It’s like the homeowner who can’t afford to repair his roof, so he takes a chance there won’t be another storm. Or the guy who puts off fixing his car until he’s standing by the side of the road.

I think public scrutiny of government spending saves a lot more money than it costs.

Like everybody else, government has a tendency to look after its own interests first. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of dedicated public servants who realize who they serve, who pays the bills and where their responsibilities lie.

And when asked, I’m sure they would say they’re for government openness and transparency. After all, they’re taxpayers, too.

But the shift I’m seeing is away from the government’s responsibility to inform its constituents, and toward the public’s responsibility to look things up, all in the name of cost-cutting. Yes, there is a cost for accountability. There’s a greater cost when it’s lacking.

When I testified against SB65, I brought up the example of Bell, Calif., where apparently no one bothered to keep an eye on what the city manager, mayor and council members were doing. It may be a rare exception, but it took only one case of brazen greed to cost Bell taxpayers at least $6.7 million and perhaps millions more in misappropriated funds.

Could that happen in Nevada? I don’t think it’s likely — especially in the cities and counties that are following the law by publishing their quarterly finances. Not all of them do. It makes a big difference, in my mind, whether the bills being paid by tax dollars are published for all to read or whether they merely are filed away in a drawer at City Hall.

I’d also like to think Nevada residents, and the local newspapers that serve them, are conscientious watchdogs of taxpayer money. It would be hard to imagine the kind of fraud in Bell being pulled under our noses here.

But if things continue on the path they’re headed, we wouldn’t really know until somebody decided to go down to City Hall and look it up.

Barry Smith is executive editor of the Nevada Press Association.

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