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Opinion: Internet Has Altered Government Transparency

Despite legitimate concerns about misinformation online, there are also some major benefits to our increased reliance on the Internet to obtain information, including how it has helped to alter government transparency.

(TNS) — In addition to death and taxes, there is another certainty in life — property tax bills will result in letters to the editor complaining about taxes or questioning where the money goes.

That is a good thing; we welcome the input and the questions from readers. “Our Readers’ Views,” which appears daily on The Columbian’s Opinion page, is your forum. And when it comes to property taxes — one of the most misunderstood portions of government and government funding — there is a new tool to inform local residents.

The Clark County Auditor’s Office has developed on online portal to help taxpayers dig into county finances without requiring a backhoe. And on Page 9 of the report is one of those cool graphics that takes a dollar bill and divides it based on where the money goes.

There, we learn that for every dollar in Clark County property taxes, 28 cents go to local schools and 21 cents go to state schools (some of which comes back to local schools). Yes, nearly half of every property tax dollar goes to public education, which we think is a pretty wise investment.

Of the rest, there are 15 cents to cities and towns in the county, 10 cents to county roads, 9 cents to fire and emergency services (some cities also fund their own services), 3 cents to the library system, etc.

Clark County collects about $755 million annually in property-related taxes. The portion that goes to county government accounts for the biggest chunk of that government’s funding.

Property taxes, however, often generate confusion. If the county council increases property tax collections by the permissible 1 percent in a given year, that does not necessarily mean your taxes increase by 1 percent; it might be more, it might be less.

A 1 percent increase means the entire levy is raised by that amount, and then officials get out their calculators and figure out how much each property owner owes. If you live in a neighborhood with quickly rising property values, your tax bill might rise accordingly.

But if the county has seen a lot of new construction, with more properties contributing to the tax levy, your bill might go down. Clark County's total assessed property value increased from $64.5 billion in 2018 to $73 billion in 2020.

Despite all that, we didn’t come here to talk about taxes. Instead, we are here to marvel at how the internet has altered government transparency over the past two decades or so.

While we often lament the easy spread of misinformation online, there also is some beneficial information that can create a better-informed public.

For example, a couple clicks can lead us to the 1,103-page state budget for 2021-2023, as approved by the Legislature. And a couple more clicks can give us up-to-date 2021 budgeting and spending for city services in Vancouver. And the state auditor’s Financial Intelligence Tool can provide financial information for any government entity in the state.

As of Tuesday, for example, the city of Vancouver’s general fund had spent $106 million of its budgeted $189.94 million for 2021.

Information that years ago was mostly inaccessible is now at our fingertips. That plays a role in holding government accountable and ensuring that elected officials are acting in the best interest of the public. (Just a reminder: A free, independent press also plays a role in that accountability.)

This is beneficial for creating an efficient, responsive government. All it requires is an engaged, interested public. Unfortunately, that is not as certain as death or taxes.

© 2021 The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.