The recently unveiled section contains information regarding detailed city expenditures and revenues, which can then be separated by department or category. The software takes the city’s data from the last five years and generates a set of interactive and easy to follow charts and graphs displaying specific financial information. You can find the new section on the far right side of the website’s menu bar by clicking on “Transparency.”
“I think people need to know what’s out there,” said Saratoga Springs’ Commissioner of Finance, Michele Madigan. “It’s the very first step to give people more transparency about the budget, right down to all the different appropriations and line items.”
Madigan campaigned on the idea of making government more accessible, and she feels this section to the website is an important step in letting citizens knows what is available to them at any given time.
“If you come to city council meetings, we have our citizens who, when as soon as that quarterly report comes out, they’re all over it, and they’re letting us know what expenses to watch. Giving this information to them in this variety of formats allows more and more people accessibility to this information and gets more citizens involved with city government.”
The idea for the website’s addition was loosely based on the website of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The southwestern city’s website has won awards over the last two years naming their site as the “Top Transparency Website” by Sunshine Review, which is a community-driven organization promoting proactive online government disclosure. There is software available to its citizens which is similar to the Saratoga site, along with other informational sections such as “Where do my taxes go?” The Albuquerque site goes so far as to list political contributions, travel expenses and even their mayor’s city credit card statements.
Commissioner Madigan stresses that this isn’t only intended to be a finance department initiative, and has told all other current city commissioners, along with the mayor, that if there is anything they would like to add to the section, they are welcome to do so.
While finance may be the only department currently prepared and able to share their information in such a way, Madigan believes other departments will eventually begin to see the benefit of allowing access to their information.
“Every year one of the big Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests is salary information for city workers,” said Madigan. “Why not put it here, clearly defined with what it means? A lot of times data gets taken and extrapolated, for instance you don’t know if you’re looking at the actual salary, or the salary with overtime, or with cut compensatory time. I’m thinking the city might have a little more control if we put it out there for people to take and use, but we can give the exact definition so people actually know what they’re getting.”
For now, the city’s financial data from 2008 to the first quarter of 2012 is available at www.saratoga-springs.org. Madigan promises her department will continue to update the section as new information on 2012 is available. She hopes to include Capital Budget information in the near future, allowing citizens to see what costs are associated with projects, such as the new parking garage along Woodlawn Avenue.
“If you’ve ever looked at previous quarterly reports, you didn’t get this break down like this, it’s just a general ledger.”
Deputy Finance Commissioner Lynn Bachner agrees with Madigan that this will make it easier for the city’s residents to find the information they’re looking for – though she might have preferred things the old fashioned way.
“The budget can be a bit dry for some people,” said Bachner with a laugh. “But I love the budget.”