Texas cities’ online checkbooks let residents see where tax dollars are going

Cities across Texas are starting to open their books to the public by posting their check registers online.

The Dallas Morning News

August 9, 2010

By Ian McCann

Open government advocates applaud the trend, though they note that in many cases the way the information is provided makes it difficult for the public to scour the books.

“It is still too early to tell the effectiveness because it’s so new,” said Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “To see governments embracing putting check register information online, that’s a good thing.”

The move toward online availability of each payment that cities, counties and school districts make is being spurred in part by a program that Texas Comptroller Susan Combs started late last year called the Texas Comptroller Leadership Circle. The program recognizes governmental bodies that post budgets, audits and check registers online.

J.R. DeSilva, spokesman for the comptroller’s office, said the program is part of Combs’ push for transparency. It began with posting her agency’s financial information, then moved to all state agencies.

“It’s been a positive reception,” he said. “It demystifies government. I do think it helps earn people’s trust in government.”

Cities are joining school districts and counties with online records.

Collin County Judge Keith Self pushed for an online check register soon after he was elected to foster trust and accountability. Two years ago, Collin County was among the first in the state, but today the comptroller’s office lists 39 cities, 35 counties and 322 school districts.

“Everybody needs to see how their money is actually being spent,” Self said. “I’m delighted that people are now seeing the benefits of this.”

Self said it doesn’t matter whether people actually use the information; simply having it available helps to instill trust in government.

“It’s amazing how meaningful to people it is,” he said.

Collin County has learned since its check register was first posted how to improve the system. The county first used PDF documents, which can be hard to search and manipulate for analysis. The county now posts spreadsheets, which allow data to be more easily searched, rearranged and analyzed.

Different cities and counties provide information in different ways. Plano and Lewisville have searchable databases, for instance, while Irving , Highland Park and Frisco post monthly PDFs. Some include a detailed description for each expenditure, while others are more vague.

Richardson officials plan to begin posting the city’s check register in October, though the format won’t be finalized until next month.

Steve Mitchell, a Richardson City Council member, said he supports making a searchable database available.

“Our taxpayers should have an easy way of seeing how their dollars are being spent,” Mitchell said. “It needs to be something that’s easily usable.”

Elkins said that a PDF should be only a first step.

“If you go the route of putting the raw data out, then you get the maximum usefulness,” he said.

In a spreadsheet or database, people can search, sort and compile the data. That allows for more thorough analysis. Otherwise, the data is simply a list of expenditures.

Still, Elkins said, giving any information to the public is a good thing. With few exceptions, public finances need to be open to the public, he said.

“No one has ever given me a successful argument about why financial information shouldn’t be public.”

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