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|City recognized for financial report in plain English|
September 06, 2008
It's hard to beat plain English for understandable communication. Tallahassee City Auditor Sam McCall thinks that same basic rule should apply to a financial report, too.
Tallahassee has become the latest city to publish a "Citizen-Centric Report" as a means of communicating clear, understandable government financial information to residents and encouraging citizen involvement in the budgeting process. The distinction has been recognized officially by the Association of Government Accountants.
"This is the first year we did it," said McCall. The AGA is made up of about 15,000 financial-management professionals in federal, state and local government. Their concern is that if citizens are to hold government financially accountable, then they need information that clearly explains what government is doing and how it's spending the dollars it takes in.
"What they are getting and what they want are two different things," McCall said.
While many public officials and agencies today regard citizens as customers, he likes to think of them as owners — similar to the stockholders who receive company financial statements to know how their investments are doing.
While stockholders seek profits and return on equity, taxpayers expect to see what their money was spent on and what was accomplished. "Are we doing what the citizens expect us to do?" he added.
The four-page report begins with a description of the city's government and organization, leading into the services provided and how they are funded. One chart breaks down the sources of the various revenues, and another shows how they are allocated for police, parks, public works, debt service and other expenses.
And there is a distinct lack of jargon that often appears in such reports.
The AGA's initiative for financial reporting is called Advancing Government Accountability. The intent is to develop new thinking and practices in government accountability and transparency, promoting their value to the public as well as to those in government. The organization stresses the importance of government financial information that is clear and understandable, updated regularly, easily accessible and technically accurate in detail.
McCall says he is interested in Tallahassee residents' reaction as well, including areas of interest in which an audit may be warranted to determine whether the taxpayers are getting value for their dollars.
"I'm keeping a folder on all the responses I get back from people," he said, adding that nearly 40 have offered their input.
For a copy of the report, go to www.talgov.com/auditing/pdf/citizenreportt2007.pdf.
Full Story: tallahassee.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080906/BUSINESS/809060327/1003
|EIA launches plain language series to explain energy topics|
May 01, 2008
Energy in Brief, released today, is a new series from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) that explains important energy topics using plain language.
As the source of official energy statistics from the U.S. Government, EIA provides the most accurate, policy-neutral energy data and analysis available.
The new Energy in Brief series strives to make EIA information more accessible to energy novices.
“Energy education is a critical part of EIA’s mission. At a time when American consumers face many energy-related challenges, it is more important than ever to provide the public with reliable energy information in a format that is useful and accessible by the widest possible audience,” said EIA Administrator Guy Caruso.
Each Energy in Brief concisely answers a question of importance to the public. The goal is not to be exhaustive but to clearly cover the main points. The Briefs are designed to be visually-engaging web pages that are also printer-friendly.
The articles released today address the following:
The Energy in Brief series is available on EIA’s web site at: http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/energy_in_brief/.
Email delivery and RSS feed options are also available to receive the latest Briefs as they are released.
|AARP Financial Inc. survey finds: When it comes to financial jargon, Americans are befuddled|
April 17, 2008
Most Americans find the language of Wall Street technical and confusing and may be making investing mistakes and missing opportunities as a result, according to a nationwide survey released here today by AARP Financial Inc.
More than half (52%) of 1,203 adults surveyed said they've made an investment where they had an unfavorable outcome —- like owing unexpected taxes or paying an early withdrawal penalty — because they felt "confused" by or "didn't understand" an investment.
"What we have here is a failure to communicate," said Richard "Mac" Hisey, Chief Investment Officer at AARP Financial, a taxable subsidiary of AARP. "The relatively straightforward process of saving for the future has become incredibly complicated."
"The research shows that investing has become unnecessarily complex, confusing and, in some cases, intimidating," Hisey said. "As a result, many American investors have saved too little — most with less than $50,000 for retirement — or are too intimidated to get started in the first place."
The survey of 1,203 adults age 18 or older was conducted by telephone from January 23 to February 10, 2008 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media, a division of GfK Custom Research North America. The margin of error for the sample of 1,203 respondents is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
"Many people are more likely to read the nutritional information on a cereal box than read a mutual fund prospectus before they buy," said Hisey. "The recent efforts by the SEC to simplify the prospectus are a long stride in the right direction. Investors need quality, not quantity, of information."
Less than one-third of those surveyed said they understood the terms "basis point," "expense ratio," or "index fund" well enough to explain them to a friend or co-worker. Not surprisingly, half of those surveyed described themselves as "not so" or "not at all" knowledgeable about investing, and more Americans feel confident in their ability to select the right surgeon for a major surgery than feel confident about choosing the right investments.
Financial Jargon: Costly for Many Americans
Over half—52%—of those surveyed said they've made an investment mistake because they were confused by or didn't understand an investment. Specific mistakes cited by respondents include failing to or waiting too long to invest because of confusing information (cited by 30%) and making an investment they regretted because they didn't understand it (28%).
"Financial jargon can have painful and enduring consequences," Hisey said. "Americans face enough roadblocks on the road to a financially secure retirement. Poor communication should not be one of them."
The survey found that one out of six Americans have failed to sign up for a retirement plan at their job because they didn't understand how it worked, and better than four in ten (44%) said they don't understand how an IRA account works.
Less than one in five (19%) survey respondents said they are very confident they will have enough money to live comfortably in retirement, due in part to this confusion.
May 16, 2007
It’s all over the news. The mortgage industry is a mess and too many of our neighbors are going into foreclosure. ABC2 News Investigator Tisha Thompson realized most folks don’t really understand what the heck everyone is talking about…literally.
After 34 years in the same house, Bill Jones is getting ready to move…
“It’s a lot of memories,” he says. “A lot of memories.” Against his will.
“Exactly when we got to go, I don’t know.”
After a two year legal battle, Jones is about to go into foreclosure. "What should have been an ordinary business transaction has turned into a nightmare.”
Jones says it all started when he tried to refinance his mortgage two years ago. “They promised me a 30 year conventional loan at a fixed rate,” he says.
But he ended up with an adjustable rate mortgage with an exploding interest rate. “I’ll be paying about twice what I was promised.”
Jones says he only figured this out after he deciphered all the words in his loan agreement…after he signed the documents.
We got hold of a basic contract for a traditional 30 year mortgage. Its one of the simplest contracts out there. But read a typical clause:
“'Lender may, at lender's option, without giving notice to or obtaining the consent of borrower, borrower's successors or assigns of or any junior lien holder or guarantors...”
After reading it three or four times, we still don't know what it means. So we brought it to the experts:
Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Secretary Thomas Perez, the man in charge of Maryland’s mortgage laws…
And Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) who says, "I call this lawyer talk."
Both are powerful lawyers and both men had to stew over the document before they could explain it us. "Basically what this saying is that the lender can extend the time you can you will have to make a payment,” Cummings says. “I would know that only because I'm a lawyer. The average person wouldn't have a clue."
Both agreed we become easy targets because most of us don’t know what the words in our loan agreements mean. "That is not fair and that is not legal,” Perez says. He believes the complicated language is the main reason why our ABC2 News Investigation found Maryland Latinos were three times more likely to end up with a high-risk loan than their white, non-Hispanic neighbors.
"I don't think I have limited English proficiency and I had a heck of a lot of trouble interpreting this,” Perez says. “I've met way too many people who did have limited English proficiency and it was precisely that language barrier that allowed them to be taken advantage of." But Perez admits he can’t make lenders use plain English in their documents. "At the moment I can't force the lender to do this."
He and Cummings are still encouraging lenders to use simple English in their contracts. "We need to simplify these documents as best we can," Cummings says.
But Bill Jones says it’s already too late for his Pimlico neighbors. "People have had to move after 30, 40, 50 years because they took out loans they didn't understand. I think it should be made simple where people can understand it. We're not trained mortgage bankers, finance agents, were just normal folk."
Full Story: www.abc2news.com/content/investigators/story.aspx?content_id=adbe76eb-becd-4cd3-8334-03ef47866aef
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