The Return of the Tax Man: Preston Trigg

by Drew R. Hamilton

Preston Trigg, director of administration and special projects, of the Hillsborough County Tax Collector’s Office returned to the Public Affairs Reporting class at the University of South Florida to discuss how to read a government entity’s budget.

It’s an age-old saying, “follow the money”.  To find corruption or abuse of power an investigative reporter can discover many story ideas from this time-tested expression.  But how do you follow the money?

Being able to sift through government budgets and understand what key numbers to look for, will empower investigative reporters and further the development of their craft.

Government balance sheets are divided into two areas: expenses and revenue.

Obviously, the expenses side of the sheet will list any and all monies spent by the department or office, while the revenue side will list any monies paid to the office or department.

Expenses are divided into three categories:
1) Personnel – this is the money used to pay salary and benefits such as health care costs.
2) Capital – this area covers one-time purchases of anything priced over $1,000.
3) Operating – this area contains all recurring costs that cover day-to-day operations.

The expense side of the balance sheet list decreases in parentheses and each expense is labeled with an object code, in order to analyze costs by grouping like costs.

Revenues include many different classifications:
– Taxes (property and sales tax)
– User Fees (tolls)
– Fines (speeding fines, parking fines)
– Occupational License Fee (occupations from hairdressers to contractors)
– Utility payments
– State & Federal Grants
– Fund Balance (money left over from the previous fiscal year)

Trigg explains that large increases and decreases in the budget should be a telling sign for reporters to look at.  Even small increases in fees and licensing can mean a great deal for the operating costs of the private sector and will surely attract the ire of the business community being affected.

Budget crises are occurring all over the United States as newly elected republican governors have been using the budget discussions to target unions and playing a game of political bait and switch.

In Florida, Governor Rick Scott has drawn criticism over his plans to cut $3 billion dollars from the state’s education funding, a move that would reduce the budget for the Hillsborough County School District by $100 million dollars.

All municipalities, no matter what the size, deal with a finite budget.  How the government decides to spend the public’s tax dollars and the rest of their revenue is a direct indication of what we, as a society, find important.  Government budgets are the key to finding where that discretionary fund is being spent or why the superintendent was taking a trip to Las Vegas.

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Published in: on April 4, 2011 at 8:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

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