Do you know where your tax dollars go? Roanoke launches new 'picture book' with that answer

The annual simplified comparative report launches Thursday

ROANOKE, Va. – The city of Roanoke spends millions of dollars every year, but where does it all go? Roanoke is set to release a new kind of report Thursday that answers that question.

The city already answers that question every year when auditors put together huge amounts of data that city staff and other high-level people look at. But other than that, there aren't a lot of regular people reading it. The city wants that to change and that's why this year they're trying something different to get more citizens involved, swapping what's like a chapter book for a picture book.

Emma Coole and Brian Pendleton are the yin to the yang on this project in Roanoke's audit department. They sit across the hall from each other at work, separated by a hallway of mundane office supplies. They're the first to admit excitement isn't the first word that comes to mind around there.

"I think the big idea was for us to have a document that the average person could actually use, the CAFR that the finance department publishes every year," Coole said as we cut her off.

We'll stop right there. What is a CAFR? It's a comprehensive annual financial report that's nearly three hundred pages long. It details all the city's doings with financial data and a little more. But here's the problem. Unless you work for the city or are in the finance industry, you probably have never read it, let alone knew it existed.

That's why this year, the city is trying something different. In addition to the full report, they're publishing the simplified comparative report, to make it more digestible and easy to understand for people.

"Brian and I always joked about the pension footnote (in the regular version,) we would say if anyone reading it got to there they would just stop right then because it's confusing," Coole said.

While most people can't translate what so many millions of dollars spent on transportation means, they can understand how many sidewalks the city fixed, or how many miles of road it paved and where the city's falling short. Both are represented on graphs in the simplified report.

"It's going to capture people's attention better, versus a longer report with so many pages, they're going to be more likely to pay attention," Pendleton said.

Pendleton handled the layout, while Coole handled the numbers. Their boss came up with the idea, modeling it after other cities. The report gets after the cold hard data - not so much worried about how much did the city spend, but rather, what did it get from that spending - and makes its points in infographics and charts. They're easy to digest and have made for perfect social media postings. Think of it as #TriviaTuesday.

"Everybody who lives here is ultimately paying taxes here so you think they'd be a little interested in where that money is going," Coole said.

The simplified report goes deeper than the financial report, adding in info about downtown events, libraries, housing, health and more. It also includes important information about public safety.

The two hope people will be excited to dive head first into information that otherwise remains hidden between the lines.

"We'll have something that may have citizens more engaged, may have policy-makers looking at something they've never seen before, and policy-makers will be able to see everything in one document," Pendleton said.

The city will post the report Thursday on its website roanokeva.gov


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