One of the most rewarding things about being a certified public accountant (CPA) is the ability to give back. One of the many ways to do so is by getting involved in your local community.
CPAs can play a vital role in empowering their local communities to better understand their budgets. Every CPA possesses a valuable skill set — often hiding in plain sight — that can lend insight into a local budget; this often includes an interest in, and proficiency for, working with numbers and an expertise in helping communicate the story behind those numbers.
The New Jersey Office of the Comptroller notes on its website that “If you want to understand and shape how your tax dollars are being spent, reading your local government’s budget is essential.” But digging into a local budget is no small task when familiarity and proficiency varies in the community. Consider that in recent years, New Jersey has made efforts to increase fiscal literacy around issues of personal finance, including the launching of a new financial wellness platform. CPAs can step into this gap, to help simplify basic financial concepts around local budgets.
The International Federation of Accountants notes that professional accounting organizations (PAOs) can also help by “supporting financial inclusion.” There is a good example of this from 2016 when the New Jersey Society of CPAs partnered with the NJ Realtors and the Association of Municipal Assessors of New Jersey to create the New Jersey Homeowner’s Guide to Property Taxes. This guide, rich with detail and summarized with an emphasis on accessibility and readability, is an excellent example of how CPAs can contribute to civics and raise the profession’s profile in our communities.
A CPA volunteering in the community can also help break the details down. My own story serves as an example. For the past 10 years, I have written a local blog called “Civic Parent” that is focused on property taxes and school funding in Jersey City — where I live and where my children have attended the public schools. My interest in writing Civic Parent started with a desire to better understand local finance in Jersey City. I have found that public budgets can often be a hard nut to crack for the average taxpayer and resident, especially if the information is shared with the public in Excel or PDF. Two good examples are New Jersey's “Property Tax Tables” and its “Municipal User Friendly Budget,” each of which provides a wealth of data about the state and local financial landscape but may be hard to access for users who are not proficient with spreadsheets. However, a CPA can use their skillset to aggregate the data, group and filter, and also visualize in software like Tableau (which is the data visualization tool that I use).
The profession stands to gain if CPAs volunteer their skill sets in the community. In its 2023 Pipeline Acceleration Plan, the AICPA noted that “improving perceptions” of accounting is needed to attract new talent into the industry. By getting more involved in civic life, we can actively work to help show what CPAs do and how we can be positive contributors to the community.