Oh, The Things You Will Learn

An intern's brush with bureaucracy

Gathering up-to-date public pension data is no trivial task. While all municipalities are required to report basic accounting and financial information, many make it quite difficult to obtain.

Cities and townships are required to file audits and most list a Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) with this information. But just because the reports have to be filed doesn't mean they are easy to find. Even among Michigan's 100 largest municipalities, there are large discrepancies between how the reports are posted online.

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Taxpayers should take note because politicians across the spectrum and at all levels of government talk about working for the people and increasingly many promise transparency. But a look at how CAFR reports are filed shows there is a lot of work to do.

The first problem is how the information is presented on the CAFR itself. Many start with a title page and an introduction to the report. From there, it seems there is no order other than broad section requirements of introductory, financial and statistical sections. This means that to find the type of pension plan the municipality offers and the statistics behind it, you have to sort through every page after the introduction.

Using keywords to search helps, but many CAFR reports are uploaded in one giant picture format scanned onto the computer instead of an easy-to-read, text-based PDF file that would cooperate with shortcuts.

Another problem is the delayed posting of information. The reports are to contain information updated through the end of the third quarter, which was June 30 (based on an Oct. 1 through Sept. 30 fiscal year). But when searching in June, many municipalities still didn’t have the information through June 30, 2013.

Michigan's Department of Treasury also provides a link to CAFRs from cities and townships. But when that data is old, or not even posted, it requires a visit to the municipalities' main website. Some CAFRs still weren't there. What good is this depth of information if by the time you are able to view it the information is out-of-date and irrelevant?

That forces people to then reach out to local public employees for the current information, but when contacted, some were unsure of what the information was, or how to get it.

In one township, the treasurer passed the note on to another employee and wrote: "I think that this request may fall in your area."

She responded: "A CAFR is the annual budget/audit. I'll send this to [name withheld]. Not sure if it's legit."

Eventually, I got the information.

Taxpayers deserve better, especially for documents that are supposed to be readily accessible and up-to-date.

(Editor's note: This column has been slightly modified since its original posting.) 

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