Tomorrow is Halloween, when children wear costumes to disguise their identities and go house to house knocking on doors in anticipation of collecting treats from willing victims.

It is also the time of year when Jackson County begins the eerily similar process of putting together the next year’s budget in a trick-or-treat fashion.

Picture the county executive masquerading with his money surplus, disguised as a budget crisis. Gleefully, he goes from department to department with the intent of collecting “voluntary” budget cuts from department heads that are “under the gun.”

Yes sir, Mr. Executive! We’d be happy to help you avert the impending doom. Wink. Wink.

The fact is Jackson County operates under a balanced budget ordinance, as many state and local governments do. It is likely that your city passes a balanced budget each and every year. And that’s a good thing.

Balanced-budget laws were put in place as a safeguard to keep a lid on runaway deficit spending. The idea is to prevent local leaders from running up yearly deficits (debt) in the name of taxpayers ... (like Congress does).

But here at home, crafty finance administrators are using the balanced budget requirement to politically benefit elected leaders. And here’s how they do it.

They make the assertion that there is a budget crunch, that there is no money sitting around, that cuts will have to be made – that the money is all budgeted and therefore there is no money around, anywhere.

“What we have here is a full-blown budget crisis.” We’re in a tough spot, they say ... when nothing could be further from the facts. I like to deal in facts, and just because the money is all budgeted, it does not mean there is no money.

A surplus in a balanced budget can either be in a single line item or spread around the budget in various departments in the form of unfilled positions, or accounts that are historically unspent year after year. It’s called padding a budget. The padding is the surplus.

Most of the time, a balanced-budget ordinance is used by politicians to claim all the money is budgeted. But don’t be fooled into thinking it is gone. Like a ghost does on Halloween, it will mystically conjure itself and reappear as a surplus at the start of the next year’s budget draft.

Now I could go on in full detail, but let’s cut to the chase and make things easy. Here’s is how you can find out if your city or county has a shortfall or budget crisis for real.

Get a copy of a Certified Annual Financial Report, sometimes referred to as a “caffer” (CAFR). It is an independent audit. Then, mail it or e-mail it to a professor who specializes in teaching government accounting at a credible university.

Pose this question: How much surplus did we begin the year with? And I suggest that you might want to be sitting down.

The point is, you don’t have to be an expert; you just have to ask an expert – instead of mistakenly relying upon a bureaucrat whose employment fate is in the hands of an elected office holder.

So this Halloween, refuse to wear a veil of ignorance. Check it out and you’ll conclude that sometimes the hobgoblins are in your government. Now that is scary! BOO!