Annual Reports: Planning, scheduling and meeting deadlines are critical to publishing a good annual report
(from Maine Townsman, October 1991)
by Michael L. Starn, Editor


30-A MRSA 2801 [sidebar]

An annual municipal report requires planning, scheduling and the meeting of deadlines to have a finished product that will please you and functionally do what you want it to do.

The better you plan, the easier the task will be. Step-by-step planning is critical to the development of any project. This applies to building a house or publishing an annual report. The first step in planning an annual report is deciding the purpose of the report: what you want it to do. Once you clearly define the annual report's mission, then you can plan for how it will accomplish that mission.

Scheduling is also a very important part of the process of producing an annual report. Scheduling is an effective way of guiding the pieces of the project into place in a timely and orderly manner. Scheduling will help to identify each individual's responsibility and thereby maintain control of the total production process.

Meeting deadlines is perhaps the most difficult aspect of producing an annual report. An annual report is often viewed as an "add on" responsibility - something to be done in your "spare time." For most communities, the individual with primary responsibility for producing the report will have other regular duties to perform as well. And, those individuals who are asked to contribute will also have regular duties to perform and those jobs will probably take precedence over their annual report responsibilities.

Good annual reports take time and commitment. The support and help of elected officials and the chief administrative officer for the project and the people involved is critically important. Everyone involved in the project must know that producing an attractive, informative, useful annual report is a priority for the community. They must know that the manager and council/board of selectmen have given it a high priority.

Steps In The Process

As mentioned before, the first step in producing an annual report is to determine its purpose. Do you want it to inform residents of the activities of their municipal officials and employees? Is its purpose to give a financial picture of the community? Do you feel an annual report has limited value, and therefore all you want to do is produce, in the cheapest manner possible, a report that complies with the requirement of State law? (see accompanying chart on 30-A MRSA 2801).

It is important at this point to clarify the difference between an annual report and a financial report. In many states, state law requires that a financial report be published but not an annual report. Maine law (30-A MRSA 2801) specifies that an annual report shall be published.

30-A MRSA 2801 is a little confusing in that it is an awkward attempt at combining a financial report with an annual report. The law requires the reporting of specific financial information, such as a record of financial transactions and a statement of assets and liabilities, but gives little guidance as to the other aspects of a municipal annual report. Financial information is just one part of an annual report.

An annual report can be a useful and valuable communications tool for municipal officials. Municipal officials who subscribe to the philosophy that a well-informed citizenry is a more responsive one will give the annual report a higher priority.

Getting Started

One of the first things to be done in producing an annual report is to select an editor, or the person who will have primary responsibility for overseeing the planning and production of the annual report. It is important to note here that the annual report is a message from the entire municipal government, not just one individual or department. Therefore, it is important that input, guidance and help be given from elected officials, the manager and others to the individual who assumes the editor's role.

The next thing is to establish a budget. How much money do you want to spend on the annual report? Production issues, such as the finished size, number of pages, and number of copies printed, are tied to the budget. An important point to remember is that more pages and more copies will add significantly to your cost, but may not be indicative of the quality of your annual report. Some of the repeat winners of the MMA-sponsored "Municipal Reports Competition" have annual reports that have had fewer pages and more white space (less crowding of information) than those not selected. Other factors, like typesetting, choice of paper stock, type of binding, and use of color, will also have an effect on costs.

If you have no one working for the municipality that is particularly knowledgeable in the areas of graphic arts and printing, it might be wise to solicit the assistance of a professional graphic artist, or your local printer for help. In order to develop a realistic budget for your annual report, you need to know what options are available. Proper planning will keep costs under control and will allow for a finished product that contains few, if any, "surprises."

Organizing the Report

Publications have two components, editorial and graphics. Assimilating these components in an attractive, easily read format is the objective.

The editorial content is the written copy, the department reports, transmittal letters, etc. Written materials should be clear and concise, and organized in a way that gives the publication continuity. The editor of the annual report should establish guidelines for those submitting material for it. These guidelines would include the number of words or lines desired, how the copy is presented (typed and double spaced makes editing easier), what, if any, graphics might be included with the written copy, and when it is due to the editor.

Graphics, which are the photographs, charts, graphs, tables, etc., can add greatly to both the appearance and the readability of a publication. There are all kinds of ideas for use of graphics. Photos might include new buildings and/or equipment, municipal officials and employees, awards, or services being provided. Action photos - for example a road crew plowing snow or firefighters at the scene of a fire - are much more interesting than passive photos, such as a group shot of the town council. Graphs and charts are particularly helpful at explaining and enhancing financial information.

Most annual reports have standard items, such as the letter of greeting from the elected officials and the chief administrative officer, the departmental reports, financial information, and the town meeting warrant (in those communities with town meetings). By law, Maine municipal reports must also include a list of delinquent taxpayers, any engineering or survey reports relating to municipal boundaries, and excerpts from the audit report.

A number of other possibilities should also be considered for the annual report, such as a listing of the town officials with phone numbers; an organizational chart; a listing of municipal services with who to call; financial trends; goals for the coming year; maybe, a "Year In Review" section to capsulize the major events.

The more people involved in generating ideas for the annual report, the better. Brainstorming sessions are particularly helpful in getting all the ideas out on the table. Once you've compiled a list of possibilities, prioritize and refine them to develop an outline of what can go into the report. This includes editorial and graphics.

The editor's job is to assimilate this material into an attractive and informational report. The editor assigns responsibilities and schedules production of the report. Realistic deadlines must be set and adhered to. The editor, with the backing of the manager or chief elected official, must enforce these deadlines.

Establishing a production timetable might be helpful. It is sometimes easier to work backwards on production. When do you need copies of your annual report? Once that date has been decided, you need to go backwards, determining how long it will take to have the report printed, how long it will take to have copy typeset (if needed), how long will the editor or printer need to layout the copy, how long will the editor (and other reviewers) need to edit the copy, and how long will the contributors (department heads and others) need to write the copy. This should tell you when you need to get started on the project. Two to three months in advance of the date when you want to see the finished product is not an unrealistic time frame.

Keeping the annual report in mind throughout the year is also a good idea because photo opportunities, in particular, may occur at any time during the year.

Production Tips

Once you've decided what information will go into your annual report, it is then time to think about ways to present the information in an attractive, concise and clear, cost effective manner. As stated earlier, the quality of a publication is not necessarily tied to the amount spent on it. Several things can be done to improve the quality without spending large sums of money. Some suggestions:

o Reduce number of copies printed. If you have left over copies each year, consider a reduction in the quantity printed. For communities that include the town meeting warrant in the annual report and mail it to all residents, this may not be an option. But, for those that mail, or hand out, the report on request, this may be something to consider.

o Reduce the number of pages. This can be a big cost savings. Past practices with your annual report can be changed. Question yourself about the things you include in the report and how it is produced. Do you really need a hundred pages (or more) to relate the important events of the past year? More importantly, will anybody read a hundred pages? Is it necessary to reprint the audit report, or would it be acceptable to say it is available upon request? Can financial information be summarized (use of charts and graphs)? Should the town meeting warrant be published separately or in the annual report?

Printing is done in signatures (or so many pages at a time); therefore, it is cost effective to have an even number of pages, generally in four, eight or sixteen page signatures. Check with your printer about this potential cost savings.

o Consider typesetting or desktop publishing. If the information that is going into your annual report is in electronic form - meaning it has been keystroked into a computer, it probably does not have to be re-keystroked to have it typeset. While expensive, typesetting will reduce the amount of pages required to carry the same amount of material. Also, typesetting allows for sizing, bolding and highlighting copy so as to make it more visually appealing.

Many phototypesetter have communications capabilities to accept files from computers. With desktop publishing - a form of typesetting using a personal computer and laser printer - near typeset quality is available at a lower cost than photocomposition. Again, the important thing is to check with your printer to see what is available. Before any material is re-keystroked, make sure you have exhausted all possibilities for transferring that information without retyping it.

o Size of publication may be a factor. Most annual reports are printed to a finished size of 6 x 9 or 8 1/2 x 11. The equipment that printers use, both presses and bindery, will vary and sometimes the size of the publication will affect the cost. Be flexible and, if there are cost savings to be gained from changing the finished size, consider it.

o Use recycled paper. This is not a cost savings, but it's the right thing to do. The total cost of printing on recycled paper shouldn't be more than 10 percent above the price of using virgin paper. If you're using coated paper, you might want to consider using uncoated, recycled paper instead (like we've done with the TOWNSMAN).

Fiscal Year Change

One question frequently asked of the MMA Legal staff concerns the requirement that it be made available at least three days prior to town meeting (see 30-A MRSA 2801(5). This question often comes from municipalities that have recently gone through a fiscal year change (calendar to July-June).

The situation is this. The fiscal year for a community on a calendar year ends December 31. The fiscal year for a community on a July-June ends June 30. Town meeting for the calendar year community is generally in March or April. Town meeting for the July-June community is May or early June. The dilemma is how to get current financial information into the annual report of the July-June communities, when their fiscal year had not ended at the time of town meeting.

A possible solution ... The municipality's annual report could be published in January or February and be based on the calendar year and include financial information from the most recently completed fiscal year. A separate financial report, containing current fiscal year information, and the town meeting warrant could be published, as required, at least three days prior to town meeting.

It is important to point out that while state law does require certain types of financial information to be included in the annual report, it does not stipulate that the financial information be from the current fiscal year. Again, financial information is only part of an annual report; there is a great deal of other information that should be included.