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Editorial: Poor access to budget information breeds distrust

Jun. 16, 2013 @ 09:55 PM

The word "Transparency" surfaced often in the recent brouhaha over Marshall University's budget.

Some faculty members claim there is very little accessibility to the university's budget details. In fact, one could argue that the university itself faces roadblocks. What set off a period of contention in April was the decision by university administrators to "sweep" money from departmental accounts. The reason, they said, was to get a better handle on the amount of money in those accounts as they started to prepare a budget for the coming year. The university itself seems to face difficulty in keeping track of money and how it's spent.

It shouldn't be that way for either the university, its stakeholders or the public, which provides tens of millions of dollars annually to support the university's operations.

Putting an exclamation point on this issue were two faculty members' requests for budget and spending information from the last several years. They were told that collecting, preparing and copying their requested documents -- estimated by the university to total some 300,000 pages -- would cost them more than $54,000 each. Those proposed costs yielded charges that the university is intentionally trying to hide something.

While there's no proof those allegations are true, the truly steep price tag and Marshall officials' explanations for those high costs make it clear that a "transparency" problem does indeed exist.

Among the public's options now is to go to the university's Office of Finance website, where the level of detail on annual budgets dating back to 2005 amounts to one or two pages. They include operating and non-operating revenues and expenses, broken down into about a dozen broad categories. That's a miniscule amount of information for budgets around $200 million annually.

Another is to go to the West Virginia Auditor's website, and establish a VISTA account. It provides information on payments to vendors, but there is no breakdown by department or information about what was purchased. In other words, there's no easily discernible way to determine how that information fits into Marshall's budget.

Or someone can contact the chief financial officer for basic information on revenues and expenses. But any detail by department would require going to each department, officials said. And there are dozens of departments.

With today's technology, the public shouldn't settle for such shallow online reporting or such an obstacle course to collect the information in another way. Sadly, Marshall is by far from alone on this issue; many agencies at all levels of government have the same shortcomings.

The result, though, is a lack of accountability and trust. That serves no one well.

After the blowup over the sweeping of accounts, Kopp established a budget work group with representatives from a wide variety of campus groups, including faculty and students. They arrived at a balanced budget, with apparently plenty of give-and-take. Representatives from groups who had not been at this budget table before said they appreciated the increased transparency that helped them understand factors influencing the budget. But they also said there should be much more as the work group continues to develop longer-term budget strategies.

There is a lesson in this for university officials. Openness and accessibility to public information can help remove the distrust, lead to better understanding of the issues, and allow stakeholders to focus on finding solutions.

Marshall should do much more to make its budget information available in a way that provides details and allows the public a better grasp on university spending patterns and priorities. Both the public and the university would benefit.

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