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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County used to publish 150-page budgets. Now they’re three or four pages long

The Spokane County Courthouse and Jail are seen in this 2019 aerial photo. For the past two years Spokane County has been publishing annual budgets that are a few pages long, in contrast to the 150-plus page budgets it has released historically.   (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Two years ago, Spokane County’s published budget ran 168 pages.

With a quick Google search, just about anyone can find it. The 2020 budget shows spending and revenue breakdowns for every department. It accounts for every employee by title and allows the reader to compare staffing increases or decreases. Most sections even include a short written description, allowing a layman to at least get the gist of what a county auditor is or how real estate excise taxes work.

Few people will ever peruse a Spokane County budget by choice, but those few wanting to keep a watchful eye on spending in 2021 or 2022 won’t find a 150-page budget. Much of the detail the old county budgets had is gone.

The county’s 2021 published budget is two pages and the 2022 budget the county commissioners passed on Dec. 13 is three pages, although each is a page longer if you count the separate one-page general fund breakdowns.

Spokane County CFO Gary Petrovich said the switch to minimalist budgets wasn’t a deliberate policy change and isn’t an attempt to decrease transparency. He said it’s mostly a technology issue.

“We switched over budget systems and that’s created a little bit of a problem for us,” Petrovich said. “We’re still struggling with that.”

Petrovich said that before 2021, the county used a software program called PeopleSoft for budgeting. Using PeopleSoft, the office could create a lengthy, detailed budget fairly easily. Humans still had to put the final document together, but the software made it simple.

Now the county’s using a software program called Questica. Petrovich said that so far, Questica hasn’t allowed the county to put together its traditional 150-page budget documents.

The goal is to provide more detailed budgets in the near future, Petrovich said.

“We are moving toward that direction,” he said, adding that the county should have a more thorough budget published in February. “We hope to remedy that very quickly here.”

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said he would like the county to once again publish detailed budgets.

“I really like the way we did it when I was with the city,” French said, referring to his time as a Spokane City councilman. “I think that next year we’re probably going to have a conversation about getting back to greater detail, not only to the board, but also to the public.”

Petrovich also said staffing challenges have made it difficult to put together a more detailed budget. He said he only has two employees and his department doesn’t have the capacity it once did. Petrovich noted that two of the county’s budget analysts, each of whom had 30 years of experience and knew how to craft the longer budgets, recently retired.

“There were still a lot of calculations, but you had more staff here and you had more experienced people working on it,” he explained.

The county held three public budget hearings this fall. Watching those meetings and reading through the hearing slideshows posted on the county website allows a resident to better understand how the county’s earning and spending.

Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said the commissioners added the public roundtables in 2017 to increase transparency.

“We really try to be as open as possible and open up the curtain to how we craft the budget,” Kerns said.

The county also posted several spreadsheets on its website Friday after The Spokesman-Review asked why the county had stopped publishing detailed budgets. Those spreadsheets provide much of the information that had been missing in 2021 and 2022 and give residents a greater ability to track county spending over the last three years.

Combining the information provided in the short budget, the slideshows and the recently posted spreadsheets allows a reader to figure out much of the information that the county used to provide in its annual published budget.

But it’s still harder to track county spending than it was two years ago and even before 2021, Spokane County’s budgets were fairly simplistic in comparison with those published by other local governments.

For instance, Spokane Valley’s 2022 budget opens with a 14-page preamble by City Manager Mark Calhoun.

Calhoun runs through the budget’s highlights. He explains that the city is hiring five new employees and describes what they’ll be doing. Calhoun also provides general context on the budget – essential context for anyone who isn’t a regular at City Council meetings – writing in some depth about Spokane Valley’s general financial philosophies and overarching goals.

If Calhoun’s explanations merely whet a reader’s appetite, there’s nearly a hundred pages of numbers right after it. A reader can track all of the city’s revenue and spending. The budget includes so much detail that a reader can see the Valley spent $50,000 in 2021 on the Wilbur Road sidewalk from Boone Avenue to Mission Avenue, and that the Spokane Valley Police Department plans to spend $8,000 in 2022 to remove a tree and debris from the lot behind the precinct.

Spokane’s budgets are similarly comprehensive, but on a greater scale. The city publishes one budget that checks in at over 1,000 pages and a condensed version that’s more than 100 pages. A resident might need an accounting degree to understand the 1,000-page version, but in theory, it’s possible to closely follow the city’s earning and spending with a quick search and a couple of clicks.

Spokane County records all of the same information, but it’s not published online, so residents would have to request public records to find most of it. Understanding the county’s finances in-depth takes more work.

Comparing a city and county budget is like comparing apples and oranges, Petrovich said. Several county department leaders are elected officials who don’t answer to the county commissioners. County governments are decentralized.

“It’s easier for the cities to break down the activity and cost in activity,” Petrovich said. “They’re able to break down their cost structure in a different way than we do.”

Kerns explained that because some county departments are run by other elected officials, who the county commissioners don’t control, the commissioners don’t analyze budget requests at the same level of detail a City Council might.

Still, the two- and three-page budgets Spokane County has been publicly sharing appear to meet only the bare minimum required by state law, according to the Washington State Auditor’s Office’s Budgeting, Accounting and Reporting manual.

“Budgeting is more than just an activity to satisfy state law,” the manual reads. “It is a sophisticated process of strategic planning, communication and policy development resulting in a detailed plan of operations.”