Jeffco supports bill for online-only publication of fiscal information

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By Corinne Westeman

Jeffco Commissioner Tina Francone told the Colorado State Senate on Feb. 14 that she and her fellow commissioners support a bill that would no longer require counties to publish full financial reports in newspapers.

Instead, counties would only have to publish a link in the newspaper that would take readers to the corresponding information on the counties’ websites.

Those who oppose the bill have argued that the current system allows for more transparency, but Francone said she believes that — if the bill is passed — counties would still be transparent via their own websites while saving taxpayer dollars.

SB-156 is sponsored by Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, and Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood. It was assigned to the Senate Committee on State, Veterans & Military Affairs on Jan. 29, and the committee moved it to the floor in a 5-0 vote on Feb. 14.

Currently, the law requires counties to publish reports regarding its expenses and contracts, the salaries of public employees and officials, and the financial statements for each fund kept by the county treasurer. The expense report is published monthly and the salary report is published twice a year.

But SB-156 would change these two reports to annual reports effective Jan. 1, 2020, and counties only would be required to publish links to the expense report, the salary report and the financial statement on their websites. They would still have the option to publish full reports in newspapers.

As of Tuesday evening, the Senate had voted 23-11 to pass SB-156 to the House.

Sponsor says bill makes sense

Kennedy decided to co-sponsor the bill after being approached by Jeffco’s lobbyist. He said that he wasn’t necessarily passionate about the issue but found that it made sense given how technology has changed since the current law was passed.

“Making that information available on the Internet gives just as much transparency and access,” he said. “It’s a sensible way to modernize our county governments.”

At the Feb. 14 senate committee hearing, Francone testified in favor with two members of the press in opposition. The committee voted 5-0 to move the bill to the senate floor.

Francone said similar bills have come up before in the state legislature for at least the past four years, but she feels confident that this time lawmakers will pass it.

“Counties are the only ones that have to publish,” she said, referring to current law, clarifying that special districts and municipalities aren’t required to publish their financial reports.

“And this is not just a Jeffco bill; every county supports this,” she continued, adding that Colorado Counties Inc. is in favor of SB-156.

Publication gives public important information

During testimony, Greg Romberg, a lobbyist for the Colorado Press Association, and Bob Sweeney, publisher for the Villager, which publishes in the south metro area, argued that public notices are well read, and newspapers are a single source for all local governments’ information.

Romberg added that the expense for counties to publish notices is minuscule, compared to their multi-million dollar budgets. In the 2018 budget, the county has estimated $432.2 million in revenues and $556.1 million in expenses.

By comparison, Francone estimated the county spends, on average, $15,000 to $20,000 to publish expense reports, salary reports and financial statements in local newspapers.

“Every little bit (of taxpayer money) counts,” she said, “and $20,000 or $80,000 or $100,000 is just a drop in the bucket. But if we think that way as public officials, then we just keep spending. ... Is (publishing in newspapers) the best use of taxpayer dollars?”

Francone emphasized that Jeffco supports full transparency, and publishing the reports online gives residents full and real-time access.

Kennedy said he knew of the news industry’s arguments against the bill but didn’t know how persuasive its stakeholders have been in the Senate. He said he and his colleagues in the House hadn’t yet discussed the bill, so he couldn’t estimate its chances of being passed in either chamber.

“I realize there’s potential revenue loss for newspapers,” he said. “.... But it’s really more about modernizing and streamlining county government.”

If SB-156 is passed and becomes law, Francone said that the county manager’s office likely would be the one to decide whether to continue publishing the full reports in newspapers or to only publish links to Jeffco’s website.

(Editor’s note: Jefferson County publishes copies of its fiscal information in the Canyon Courier; and Greg Romberg, who testified as a lobbyist for the Colorado Press Association, is a contributing columnist.)