Budget and financial information for Montgomery County just got a lot easier on the eye – and hopefully on the brain – for county residents who want to check up on how county government is keeping its fiscal house in order.
The Montco Board of Commissioners at a press briefing today introduced their new digital platform designed to give the public enhanced means of exploring the county’s $371 million operating budget, offering new opportunities for drilling down into revenue and expenditure figures that until now would have likely required a time-consuming ordeal, if they were possible at all.
The set of digital tools, powered by the vendor opengov.com, provide financial information in a range of visual formats from pie charts to line graphs and other graphing options along with numbers organized more conventionally in rows and columns. The annual cost to the county is $15,000.
County Board Chair Josh Shapiro declared that the new initiative “allows for a new level of openness and transparency in Montgomery County’s government” and “makes us better at our jobs, it makes the citizens more informed and more involved and ultimately leads to better government, and that’s what we’re all about in this administration.” The new financial platform can be accessed from the county home page (montcopa.org) or directly at montcopa.opengov.com.
Shapiro recalled that four years ago during the campaign in which his Democratic ticket defeated the Republican ticket of current County Comr. Bruce Castor, both sides had agreed that there was a lack of transparency in how data was provided to the public on county expenditures. However, he contended this morning that the new presentation format “goes far beyond what any of us were contemplating back then.” The Shapiro administration took over in 2012.
The platform allows financial data based on department or broad category of expense to be compared with actual expenditures or the 2015 budget for any year since 2010. The numbers will be updated quarterly and can be juxtaposed to the same quarter in prior years or related to the outlook for full revenues and expenditures by year-end. Future budgets will be posted on the same platform for public review prior to approval by the board.
“I’m particularly enthusiastic about this new program because I believe that our democracy works best when citizens feel engaged and able to participate in that democracy,” said Comr. Val Arkoosh. “This new tool will greatly enhance the ability of the residents of Montgomery County to be engaged in the development of their county budget and the review of their county budget and really see in a pretty granular way how their tax dollars are being spent.”
She called the new system “nimble enough” that citizens can analyze the spending of any county department and then go back and see how those expenditures integrate into the budget as a whole. “I truly hope that it will increase their engagement in our county government. It’s their county government, it’s their tax dollars that we’re spending, and that we’ll be able to get that feedback and further enhance the dialogue that we have with the county residents,” added Arkoosh.
The program is expected to supplement the public budget development process which begins in November and includes public hearings and various other responses from residents, including emails and comments via social media, said Shapiro.
Castor used the program launch to take a swipe at his former colleagues on the board (without identifying them) during the prior “coalition” administration of Republican Jim Matthews and Democrat Joe Hoeffel. He said that only weeks before the 2011 election, “my fellow commissioners at the time were telling the public that the county finances were as firm as ‘the rock of Gibraltar.’ Now we know that that was an outright lie and any time the commissioners are telling the truth to the public I think is a good day.” When the books were closed on the 2011 accounts, the county was in the red by $21.3 million, according to the Shapiro administration financial team.
Montgomery County is the latest of 183 governments along with some private sector organizations to use the OpenGov platform. According to the county, Montco is the fifth largest government customer (by population) in the nation using the tools, trailing only the federal Office of Management and Budget; Los Angeles, CA; Orange County and San Diego, CA. It is also the largest of the five other governments in PA using it, which include Pittsburgh, Reading, Baldwin Borough and West Homestead Borough (the latter two in Allegheny County).
Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson who did a demonstration of the system, said “ease of use” for the public was a key criterion for vendor selection. The project has been in the pipeline for about a year, he said, with considerable staff time invested by his office and the county’s IT department. He also pointed out that the system will support the county’s internal analytical capacity in addition to the public’s.
Monson noted that a number of issues have already cropped up that staff had not expected that triggered further study. “It certainly eases our analysis, in part because all of the data is together in one place, and because it is easier to visualize so certain trends and/or anomalies jump out,” he told Citizens’ Call in an email. He cited the example of reduced utility spending, which they were generally aware of, but “graphically, we are able to capture the steady, historic trend downward.”
The CFO hopes people having difficulty navigating the system will contact him directly by email. From the “help” menu (on the right), when the drop-down “contact Montgomery County” is selected, the email will go to Monson. “If people find that there’s something they don’t understand, I’m hoping that they ask. That’s what they should do. It’s public money. The public should be able to ask about their funds.”
He said that public use of the platform would be monitored closely, including the number of visitors and the specific tools or “views” used. If certain views through the system of data filters are popular, they can be automated for quicker use, he said.
As with most any program launch, there will be kinks to work out, possible problems to fix and improvements made down the road. The capital budget is not yet included, for example, nor is “head count” for personnel.
A few quibbles and quirks surfaced for this user. For example, while revenue sources are broken down, it’s not done in an especially useful way so that there is no way to determine whether “grants” are being provided by the federal government, state government or philanthropic or other sources. Another is the broad catch-all category for “subsidies” for education and transportation. Why is Legal Services, then, which was zeroed-out in 2013, even located in this category? In the same section, there doesn’t seem to be much information on funding for Montco Community College, which is considered by some to be an important adjunct to county government. And more generally, it would seem that the “drilling down” could use a few lower floors for the numbers to paint a more meaningful picture.
But hey, open and transparent government isn’t enabled in a day. It certainly seems on its face to be a road well worth taking for Montgomery County. And could this is be a path for area municipalities and school districts to dare tread? Just wondering.