Author: Zach Mohr

State Collection of County Financial Data Sources

By Zach Mohr and Madison Esterle

One of the fundamental problems for local government public budget and finance research in the United States is the availability of audited financial data in a format that is easy to collect and analyze. This is a problem for both researchers that are trying to assemble large data sets and for practitioners that live in states that do not have centralized collection of this data. It is also a problem for cross state data collection, which is quite common for local jurisdictions that live on the borders of states. Undoubtedly, there is much duplication of effort and a great need for local government financial information that is comparable for research and practice.

This blog post presents some basic information that we have collected on the availability of county financial data sources that are collected by states (see table 1 at the end of the blog). This information is provided to supplement other efforts and to make practitioners aware of other data sources outside of their state. It answers a few basic questions. Which states require counties to produce GAAP financial statements? Which states provide centralized collection of county financial data? And what format is the financial data collected by states reported in? We map the answers to these questions and provide some contextual description of the data, which were greatly facilitated by the excellent maps provided by NACO. We are interested in posting this data to have practitioners and others researchers look at the data, use it, and tell us where we might find other such data.

Which states require counties to produce GAAP financial statements?

GAAP financial statements are often required to produce audited financial data that is sufficiently comparable for research purposes. Interestingly, most states (29) currently do not require counties to produce GAAP based financial reports.  However, a significant number (17) do not have consistent reporting requirements or reporting requirements that differ from GAAP.

Three states are listed as N/A. This is because this information was substantially based on the NACO financial reporting maps. Also, our map differs from NACO in that we do not recognize Alaska as having consistent financial reporting requirements.

Which states provide centralized collection of county financial data?

For research purposes, we are often interested in states that collect local government financial data as it greatly facilitates the research process. It also greatly facilitates financial transparency as citizens, elected and appointed officials, and other interested parties can compare the spending and financing activities of governments as North Carolina does with its fiscal benchmarking and data collection tools.

Centralized collection happens in seventeen states and of these states (13) collect data on greater than 90% of the counties. Most of these states do not collect county information for the unique counties that have been merged with cities i.e. Denver or San Francisco or entities that are somewhat unique like the boroughs of New York City that function somewhat like counties but are also part of the city. For these purposes, in the spreadsheet at the end of this article, we have broken out the states that collect greater than 90% of their counties and those states that have a centralized collection presence on the web but collect less than 90% of their counties.

What format is the financial data collected by states reported in?

Finally, the format of the centralized financial data is important because it provides easier access to the data and should also provide better transparency and context for the financial comparability of the counties. We find that only five states have centralized collection that allows for easy exporting of the financial data to Excel or csv file formats and of these five only three have a requirement that the counties report GAAP financial statements. Most of the seventeen states provide links to pdfs (12 states).  We would like to encourage state and local governments to provide their financial information in formats that assist in data collection and analysis as this can greatly increase financial transparency of local governments.

Conclusion

Researchers and practitioners have great need of financial data. Audited GAAP financial data is the gold standard for comparability purposes.  Centralized collection of local government financial statements that are collected in ways that allow analysis like exportable .csv files are also excellent ways to facilitate transparency and analysis.

One of our main reasons for doing this blog post is to increase awareness of county financial data sources. If you know of other sources (like state associations of counties that have historical financial data that are readily and/or freely available), we would like to know about it. If these sources are available on the web, we will update this file in a future blog post. Also, please let us know if we have misclassified a state that you are aware. States can change their reporting requirements and are increasingly trying to provide greater access to local government financial data. The local government budget and finance community of researchers and practitioners can be made significantly stronger by knowledge of comparable financial data sources.

 

 

 

Table 1: County Financial Reporting by States
Centralized Collection Collection Format
State GAAP >90% <90% PDF CSV Website
AL 0 0 0 0 0
AK 0 0 0 0 0
AZ 1 1 0 1 0 https://www.azauditor.gov/reports-publications/counties
AR 0 0 0 0 0
CA 1 1 0 0 1 https://bythenumbers.sco.ca.gov/Counties-Get-Started/All-County-Data/npha-h8hu
CO 1 1 0 1 0 https://dola.colorado.gov/lgis/counties.jsf
CT n/a 0 0 0 0
DE 0 0 0 0 0
FL 1 1 0 1 0 https://flauditor.gov/pages/counties_efile.htm
GA 1 1 0 1 0 https://ted.cviog.uga.edu/financial-documents/financial-reports
HI 1 0 0 0 0
ID 1 0 0 0 0
IL 0 0 0 0 0
IN 0 0 0 0 0
IA 1 1 0 1 0 https://www.iowaonline.state.ia.us/localbudgets/default.aspx?cmd=gotopublicsite
KS 0 0 0 0 0
KY 0 0 0 0 0
LA 1 0 0 0 0
ME 1 0 0 0 0
MD 1 0 0 0 0
MA n/a 0 0 0 0
MI 1 0 1 0 1 https://f65.mitreasury.msu.edu/Reports/DataSummaryReport.aspx
MN 1 0 0 0 0
MS 1 0 1 1 0 http://www.osa.state.ms.us/reports/local/
MO 0 0 0 0 0
MT 1 0 0 0 0
NE 0 1 0 1 0 http://www.nebraska.gov/auditor/reports/index.cgi?audit=1
NV 1 0 0 0 0
NH 1 0 0 0 0
NJ 0 0 0 0 0
NM 1 0 0 0 0
NY 0 1 0 0 1 http://wwe2.osc.state.ny.us/transparency/LocalGov/LocalGovIntro.cfm
NC 1 1 0 0 1 https://www.nctreasurer.com/slg/lfm/financial-analysis/Pages/Analysis-by-Population.aspx
ND 1 0 0 0 0
OH 1 1 0 1 0 https://ohioauditor.gov/auditsearch/Search.aspx
OK 0 0 0 0 0
OR 1 1 0 1 0 http://sos.oregon.gov/audits/Pages/muniaudits.aspx
PA 1 1 0 1 0 http://munstats.pa.gov/Reports/ReportInformation2.aspx?report=cAfrForm
RI n/a 0 0 0 0
SC 0 0 1 1 0 http://www.sccounties.org/budgets-and-cafrs
SD 0 0 0 0 0
TN 1 0 1 1 0 http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/la/CountySelect.asp
TX 1 0 0 0 0
UT 1 0 0 0 0
VT 0 0 0 0 0
VA 1 0 0 0 0
WA 0 1 0 0 1 http://portal.sao.wa.gov/LGCS/Reports/ReportMain.aspx
WV 1 0 0 0 0
WI 1 0 0 0 0
WY 1 0 0 0 0
Total 30 13 4 12 5

 

*Note this research is funded by the MIT Election Data and Science Lab and its funder, the Madison Initiative of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.  We also would like to thank Robert Austin for his help in creating the maps.

 

 

There are two sides to every coin: Or is there Common Sense about Cost Accounting in Government?

In the 1990s there was a wave of euphoria about cost accounting and particularly Activity Based Costing (ABC).  One book in particular stands out in my mind as particularly euphoric: Common Cents: The ABC Performance Breakthrough by Stephen Turney.  While it had a clever title, few people remember this book now, but many people remember ABC.  Many finance and budget managers do not recall ABC with fondness.  In fact, when government budget and finance managers are asked about the use of ABC in their organizations now, most will say that they are not using it.  However, when asked if they are doing some form of cost accounting, the measure is much higher.  In this post, I explore why budget and finance managers are willing to say that they are doing cost accounting and not ABC.  I further explore (and mix) the metaphor of common sense/cents about cost accounting by thinking of its uses as two sides of the same coin.

Some background on cost accounting…

Cost accounting is the measurement and use of both direct and indirect cost information for an organizational purpose like rate setting, grant overhead recovery, performance measurement or cost management. For private businesses, cost accounting is essential for pricing goods and services.  In government, cost accounting has many uses as well.  It can be used to price goods as businesses do, to collect overhead for grants, and to improve performance measurement systems.  These are all beneficial uses that are broadly supported by most organizations. The other side of the coin is that cost accounting can be used for intensive cost management purposes, but these uses may generate resistance in organizations. Intensive cost management such as contracting out services and service cutbacks or eliminations can generate resistance from employees.  It is important for managers and budget officers that are looking to use cost accounting for the first time, or more intensively, to consider both sides of the coin and plan accordingly.


The easy side of the cost accounting coin

– Collecting grant overhead

– Accurately price goods or services

– Improve performance management systems

In my research and as described in my forthcoming edited book, cost accounting has many acknowledged uses in government.  The oldest use of cost accounting was to collect grant overhead costs from the federal government as described in the A-87 circular.  The benefit of A-87 cost accounting is that when local governments provide federal services that they should be able to charge indirect costs like HR, IT, and Accounting costs to the grant so that the local government does not have to subsidize services that are most appropriately paid for by the federal government.

Cost accounting also has an important place in accurately pricing goods and services that government “sells” to consumers.  Like federal grants, services that are sold to private consumers need to have indirect costs added into them so that the general tax is not unintentionally subsidizing the service.  Finally, cost accounting is important for performance management systems.  The work of the North Carolina Benchmarking Program most directly speaks to this issue.  Without cost accounting, we cannot be sure if performance differences come from differences in processes that we can learn from or whether they come from simple differences in resources.  Generally, few people inside an organization object to these purposes and may readily assist if they believe that it can be used to generate new revenues for their programs.

The difficult side of the cost accounting coin

– Contracting out services

– Service cutbacks and eliminations

– Overhead cost management

 

Cost accounting also has some more difficult uses.  I suggest that these are difficult only because they are difficult for people in the organization.  Analysts and managers have told me that people believe that when the government starts collecting data on the “full” cost of services they think that sweet Ms. Betty in Animal Licenses is going to lose her job.  They believe this because cost accounting allows governments to more accurately estimate the benefit associated with contracting or eliminating services.  If we only look at the budgeted costs of a services like animal licensing, we leave out important indirect costs or the budgeted cost is aggregated at such a level that it obscures the individual cost of services.  So, cost accounting can be used to both combine direct and indirect costs and track expenses at a more granular level, which becomes very beneficial for contracting and service analysis.

Cost accounting also often shows that building space, which is an often untracked overhead expense in the budget, is an important cost of services.  If the cost of building space is added into the cost estimate, the service managers often have to justify the high cost of the space for things like storage.  This is something that managers do not want to have to justify and defend.

The improved ability to evaluate contracting, service elimination, and overhead cost management are all important and appropriate uses of cost accounting from the budget officer’s perspective. However, this side of the coin may appear negative from the employee and service manager’s perspective, and organizational resistance may ensue.  Often this resistance is seen in the form of service managers focusing on the excessive time and data requirements of cost accounting.

 

My common sense suggestions about both sides of the cost accounting coin

The previous discussion of the “other” side of the coin that generates resistance in the organization has suggested why cost accounting (and ABC in particular) has been limited in government.  If the resistance hypothesis is correct, then the next question is what can be done about it? In my forthcoming edited book and in my dissertation (found here: see chapter 3 in particular), I note that the cost accounting used in practice by local governments is not completely an ABC cost accounting system, which may help this problem of resistance and minimize the time and data requirements.  I call this development “hybrid” cost accounting.  These hybrid cost accounting systems are neither very basic or exactly like ABC.  They have a mix of basic and specific cost drivers, the level of cost is passed down to some broad programs and some very specific activities, and that the “fullness” of the system is mixed.  In other words, the systems that are developed and used by cities over time are not purebred ABC systems.  The system is more basic in areas where it is not as important to have a specific activity cost and in areas that generate the most resistance.

Additionally, many cities have found that they have multiple cost accounting systems for different purposes like A-87 cost accounting plans for federal grants and then “full” cost accounting for purposes of setting rates and evaluating the cost of services.  All of this points to the new understanding that there needs to be multiple estimates of cost for the multiple purposes of government.

In conclusion, cost accounting has many significant benefits for government, but we have to use some common sense about our expectations for cost accounting and how it will be received by the organization.  In other words, we need to consider both sides of the coin and especially from the perspective of the service managers and employees. By using hybrid cost accounting systems and multiple cost systems, we may be able to minimize the resistance from the organization and maximize benefits.

Zach Mohr is an Assistant Professor at UNC Charlotte.  He has a forthcoming, edited book on cost accounting titled Cost Accounting in Government: Theory and Applications.  It will be published by Routledge in May 2017.  Links to actual local government cost accounting documents and other useful cost accounting resources can be found on his faculty website.