Friday, October 30, 2015

TRANSPARENCY?: Unnecessary Dig in Editorial on St. Augustine City Finance Computer

Editorial: St. Augustine city transparency: Let your fingers do the sleuthing
Posted: October 28, 2015 - 8:19pm | Updated: October 29, 2015 - 12:00am
Whether you’re a political gadfly, number junkie, conspiracy theorist or just Joe Citizen with a question about St. Augustine’s municipal finances, you’ll find no stone unturned next week.

Monday the city debuts its new Citizen Transparency site.
Mark Litzinger, who heads the city’s finance department, is the point person on the project which basically opens up the city books in their entirety to anyone with the time to hop online and peel back the onion of city spending. It does not take long. The actual program is deceptively simple and seriously intricate in its ability to peek under the sheets of the city’s books (there is minor redaction of some private employee information, but not financials).
The program will reside on the city’s website, Litzinger gave us a preview of the program early this week. One click takes you to a menu bar. Click “St. Augustine,” you’ll get a dropdown of citywide budgets compared to actual expenditures. Click “Categories” you’ll see personal and operational expenses, grants and more. “Departments” allows you to view, say city manager John Regan’s travel expense, as well as those of fire, The VIC, city commission, police and more. Each one opens up to expose more detailed data. Under “Funds” the 450th financials reside. Under “Government” you can breakout public safety, transportation, general government services, culture and recreation and more. Click “Vendor” you can view every city vendor in alphabetical order, with actual expenses to date. Break those down further, you’ll see every check written. “Other reports” are basically budget summaries.
The last category is “Site Links” under which you’ll find an easy to digest user guide and frequently asked questions.
The site is searchable as well, so you won’t need a degree in computer programming to mine the data you need.
Another slick feature of the system is its ability to not only show you the data, but also give you multiple options to capture it. Under the “Actions” you can download any of the information you deem important to TIFF, Word, Excel, XML PDF files and more. Color charts abound on the site — which, for instance, may be very useful and accessible for a newspaper to reprint while explaining a budget issue. It’s an extension of public access through us and to you. It should prove useful all-around.
City manager John Regan calls the new system “the next generation of citizen access.” It certainly looks that way from our brief foray into the program. Regan said much of the credit for the new site goes straight to Litzinger. “I’m really proud of Mark on this.”
Litzinger says “It mirrors our financial system exactly.” And it appears to do that — and perhaps a little more, when combined with and filtered through, all the information in new ways. Litzinger admitted “It lets me run numbers I can’t get myself right now.”
And, he said, because it’s a portal in the city’s site, “you can’t break it ... you can’t mess it up.”
Take it for a spin. Kick the tires. FYI, the initial software cost the city $10,000. Check the vendor list.
[It actually costs more, with a monthly bill, you reckon?]

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