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Report gives Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement & Power District “F” for Spending Transparency
A new report, “Following the Money 2017: Governing in the Shadows”, released by Arizona PIRG Education Fund found that special districts, like the Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District, are nationally failing to meet modern standards of spending transparency. The report looked at 79 special districts and graded them based on the accessibility of checkbook level spending data, budget information, and audited financial statements. 53% of all districts analyzed, including the district in Arizona, earned a failing grade.
The Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District provides its comprehensive annual financial reports online but does not provide checkbook level details about its spending, nor does it provide its current or historical budgets.
Special districts are government entities established by a citizen vote or other legislation. They provide a specific service or set of related services for a designated area that would otherwise typically be provided by a government entity. Such districts are defined by their ability to exercise significant fiscal autonomy; including drafting their own budgets separate from the state or local government’s legislative review process.
“Special districts like the Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District play an important role in public life, providing valuable services,” said Michelle Surka, Tax & Budget Advocate for the Arizona PIRG Education Fund. “However, special districts often fallen off the map when it comes to transparency because of how they are structured which makes it all the more vital that districts and the states in which they operate are proactive in ensuring the work they do is transparent to the public.”
In Arizona, there are over 326 special districts. In 2013, the last year for which data was available, those special districts managed over well over $5,598,031,000. These numbers are conservative since only a fraction of special districts actually report to the U.S. Census.
Nationally, special district spending transparency is lagging. Of the 79 special districts reviewed by the Arizona PIRG Education Fund and the Frontier Group, only seven special districts had a detailed spending checkbook available online. These checkbooks allow citizens to see how their tax money is spent, dollar by dollar.
"Across a diverse array of budget sizes, function types and geographic service areas, what most of these special districts have in common is their lack of financial transparency," says Rachel Cross of Frontier Group, co-author of the report. "And because special districts are the fastest growing form of local governments in the country, what we don't know about them is also growing every day."
Quasi-public and semi-independent government bodies, like special districts, tend to lag behind the transparency standards that state governments are beginning to achieve. Last year, the Arizona government earned a B for their spending transparency portal. The state allows municipal governments and school districts to include their spending data on the transparency portal. The Arizona PIRG Education Fund recommends that Arizona establishes clear financial reporting guidelines for all special districts and that special districts add their data to this central website http://openbooks.az.gov/.
According to the Arizona PIRG Education Fund, checkbook level spending information not only informs how special districts operate but can most efficiently decrease costs and waste and increase public confidence and engagement.
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