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2017-08-16 / News

County launches new ‘taxpayer receipt’ tool

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER

Chesterfield residents now have another way to determine how their local tax dollars are being spent.

Matt Harris, director of the county’s Budget and Management Department, said last week that the new taxpayer receipt tool is part of the county government’s ongoing effort to promote fiscal transparency.

“An informed citizenry is a powerful thing,” Harris added. “Our goal is to put forth as much information as possible about where money is being spent. The more educated people are about the budget, the better the feedback they can give us.”

The taxpayer receipt tool, which can be accessed at http://chesterfield.abalancingact.com/taxreceipt, works in the following manner.

Residents are requested to answer two questions: Do you own a home in Chesterfield County? Do you own a car?

If the answer to either question is “yes,” you then input the estimated value of your home and/or car.

Click on the green “View Your Tax Receipt” button and the tool provides a breakdown of how your local taxes were used to support programs and operations in the county school system, public safety, parks, infrastructure and several other categories. According to Harris, the site has received “several hundred” unique visitors per day since its launch.

“We’ve never had the ability to customize information in that way before,” he said.

The taxpayer receipt tool was created as part of Blueprint Chesterfield, the county’s year-old initiative to engage citizens and get their feedback about local government spending priorities.

“Our board believes in transparency and accountability in spending local tax dollars. It has always been a challenge to come up with user-friendly tools to communicate information,” said Dorothy Jaeckle, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors.

“The taxpayer receipt tool is another way of disseminating information. It starts with a broad overview of where their individual tax bill goes. They can then move on to more detail if desired.”

Blueprint Chesterfield launched last summer. Over a 39-day period beginning in late June, more than 6,000 citizens completed an online survey and identified education, public safety and transportation as the areas in which to devote the largest share of local resources.

In addition to holding three community workshops in July, county staff engaged citizens and distributed more than 15,000 informational cards about the survey at 17 local business, civic and social events.

Soliciting such feedback from taxpayers at the start of fiscal year 2018 was a significant change in Chesterfield, where citizens historically have been limited to participation at the end of the annual budget process.

Members of the School Board and Board of Supervisors present their proposed budgets to citizens in their magisterial districts in February and March. Both groups also hold public hearings prior to budget approval.

“I’ve heard from constituents who think what we have traditionally done with the budget process isn’t working,” Matoaca District Supervisor Steve Elswick said last year. “We ask the public to come out and tell us what’s important to them, but there’s such a small window to act on their comments.”

In response to citizen requests, the county government and school system also have posted their monthly expenditures in an easily searchable “online checkbook” since November 2014.

Members of the tea party-affiliated Chester Patriots lobbied for the online checkbook for the better part of five years. They argued that in order to provide meaningful input during budget discussions, taxpayers need to know exactly how the county government spends their money.

The county’s outreach efforts appear to be having the desired effect. Attendance at last year’s community budget meetings was higher than it has been in many years, Harris said.

“The key has been using diverse approaches,” he added. “We know not everyone is going to come and sit in a school auditorium for an hour and a half to listen to a budget presentation. We also know the average citizen isn’t going to read an entire 400-page budget document.

“We’re using everything in our tool kit. We want to be approachable for all citizens regardless of their availability or level of interest.” ¦

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