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Serving the Public Interest

Joanne S. Barry

Who better than CPAs to try to help at the local level to reduce the budgetary burden on the taxpayer?

One of the basic tenets of the CPA profession is to serve the public interest. So as New York State struggles with its fiscal woes—along with at least 35 other states that needed to close budget shortfalls as of press time—who better than CPAs to try to help at the local level to reduce the budgetary burden on the taxpayer?

This is exactly what happened in Westchester County. Members of the NYSSCPA's Westchester Chapter volunteered to review Westchester County's $1.8 billion budget and offer insight on how the county could reduce a proposed 4.9% increase in taxes.

Working with the Westchester County Association and the Business Council of Westchester, it took weeks for the task force of about 20 CPAs to attend budget hearings and various meetings, as well as to pore over the proposed budget. The project was done pro bono, with each of the volunteers dedicating between five and 10 hours to producing an analysis of the budget.

The upshot? The county government formally adopted the $1.8 billion budget, but county taxes increased by 2.9% instead of 4.9%. Did CPAs' involvement in the dialogue have an impact? I'd like to think so.

This particular case wasn't about setting policy; it was about setting precedent. As the New York Times noted (Jennifer Steinhauer, “New Year but No Relief for Strapped States,” January 5, 2010), state budgets all across the country are being prepared with the knowledge that the federal stimulus money that was available last year—and kept many states' proverbial heads above water—is now gone. The tide is rising again.

CPAs as Part of the Process

CPAs have much to offer working in concert with local governments. Fiscal responsibility is a shared responsibility among all interested parties—the public, the business community, the private sector, and the government. The difference between a tenuous budget situation and a more stable financial environment could very well be the participation of CPAs.

The reality is that even CPAs can't fix a local government's fiscal woes in one budget year. But you can start now. Become a familiar face. Introduce yourself to your local elected and government officials. As a member of the public, and even more so, as a CPA, it is your obligation to get involved. Every government needs a watchdog, including local governments. Watchdogs are not adversarial bulldogs, but they're not passive lapdogs, either. With newspapers laying off journalists by the thousands, taxpayers are in dire need of financial watchdogs who can help them make sense of the government's numbers.

This isn't an indictment of the budget-making process performed by our local governments. This is about governments and CPAs working together. CPAs are the trusted advisors to businesses that range from the corner newsstand to global corporations. And while businesses are a different animal from governments, there are certainly some similarities, which means that CPAs can lend their expertise in an advisory capacity.

The federal government, and most states, are in a budgetary crisis. Elected and governmental officials are being forced to choose between raising taxes and cutting services. They should have more options. And perhaps they would have those options if more citizens were involved in the budgetary process—especially CPAs.

Joanne S. Barry. Associate Publisher. The CPA Journal Acting Executive Director, NYSSCPA jbarry@nysscpa.org.

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