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A Conversation With…

The Government Finance Research Center works with researchers from a variety of backgrounds to analyze the role that public finance plays in our lives. In the interviews below, we talk with experts to dig deeper into pertinent topics and get their perspective on the past, present, and future of government finance.

Kathy Patterson, Auditor, Washington D.C. Heading link

Photo of Kathy Patterson

Q: One of the things your office does is to foster transparency. Can you explain why this is important?

Patterson: I’m an ex-newspaper reporter and it comes with the job to think that every word from a public official is public as is every piece of paper that government office generates.  It is a government by and for the people and every piece of paper that crosses my desk belongs to the people who pay my salary.

Transparency is also a way to make sure that there aren’t any shenanigans! The more people know about their government, the more assured they can feel that things are being handled properly.

Of course we have privacy restrictions. With a foster care program, for example, you don’t want to share an individual child’s circumstances with the public. So, there are reasons for privacy. But in the main, the default has to be that everything belongs to the public.

 

Q: Notwithstanding the great work your office does, is DC sufficiently transparent?

Patterson: No. The starting point for most people in this government is that this is my piece of paper; it’s not your piece of paper. And that seems to be the default. When a resident wants a piece of information, an agency’s initial response is ‘file a Freedom of Information Act – FOIA – request’. That’s wrong. FOIA is supposed to be the last resort. And way too many government staffers think that FOIA is the starting point and that wasn’t ever its purpose.

 

Q: Why do you think that’s the case?

Patterson: I think it comes from people who think “What business is it of yours what I’m doing? Don’t bother me. I’m busy.  Why should I spend time responding to your requests for information?” And, frankly, that’s the wrong answer. Public officials need to understand that answering the public is part of the job.

 

Q: Do you think that attitude has become more widespread?

Patterson: I don’t know if it applies elsewhere. But look at the administration in power in DC now. Mayor Bowser has done a good job in many respects, in handling COVID for example. But there is a pervasive defensiveness. As a result, the public information officer at an agency has to be careful and sometimes even fearful. Sometimes we don’t get agency responses to our reports back in a timely way, because they have to go through this labyrinth of approvals all the way up to the mayor’s office.

And again, that’s not 100%. There are some agency officials who will give you whatever you want, whatever you need, whenever you need it. There are a few of them around, but they’re probably the exception.

 

Q: I know that you testified recently that there was a need for multi-year forecasts of revenues and expenditures to be published. Can you comment on that, please.

Patterson: There are requirements that we have a budget and 5-year financial plan every year. It’s a budget that’s balanced over several years. There is also a requirement that those multi-year plans be published. But they have not been published consistently over the last 10 years. I did learn in the last few days that what I’ve been asking for, multi-year spending charts, will be included in the published financial plan and that’s good news.

This has been of concern particularly in the last year or two because I wanted to see the extent to which the executive branch is thoughtfully backing out all the COVID money from agency budgets.

Elected officials talk about this year’s budget challenge, saying “our revenues are down post pandemic, and we’ve lost all our federal money.” Well, it’s not as though they’ve lost the federal money–It was never going to extend forever anyway. And the District did a pretty poor job of putting guardrails around that money to make sure that it wasn’t being used for ongoing purposes.

That was permitted because of a poor element in the rule making on the federal level which didn’t tie sufficient strings to the COVID money. In DC I think a majority of the COVID money was declared to be “local revenue replacement” and once that designation was made it could be – and was – spent for ongoing programs.

 

Q: That must leave future year’s budgets facing hurdles. Can you comment on that?

Patterson: There’s been a rise in expenditures over the last 10 years that I’ve been in this job — a bigger number than the growth in local revenue before, during and after the pandemic. As a result, other funds from rate payer and business fees that were collected  for specific purposes have been captured and put back into the general fund.

 

Q: Can you give me a couple of examples?

Patterson:  Funds that have been set aside for the Convention Center have been “swept” into the general fund. When we landed a baseball team and built a new stadium and we created a ballpark fund to support that effort, a tax on local businesses. Some of that was raided for the general fund to help preserve a balanced budget. But the budget hasn’t been balanced on continuing local revenue that we can count on into the future.

One small example I love is a fee when a property changes hands created to update the recorder of deeds database so that if you want to get a copy of the deed to your house, you can get the copy from an up-to-date database. Since the fund was created there’s been enough money raised to buy probably 10 new databases, but instead of building a new database, this money gets raided every year by the Mayor and the Council and put into the general fund to balance the budget.

 

Q: You’ve advocated for an Expenditure Commission to look into these kinds of things, right?

Patterson: Right. There was legislation a couple of years ago to create one but the Mayor never named her members and it was repealed. That was a good idea at the time and it is still a good idea to take a serious look at what we’re buying with our tax dollars. It looks like that might be revived, and not a moment too soon!

 

This interview was conducted with Richard Greene, senior advisor, GFRC, and principal of Barrett and Greene, Inc.

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