By Jessica Renee Napier
Longboat Key, Fla., is setting an example for fiscal transparency. Two years ago, when the town’s commissioners requested an online budget module to replace paper reports and documents, the finance and IT departments delivered.
The town’s employees were quickly able to access a financial database using RedBack Ecommerce to view a live feed from the finance department’s reporting system.
“What is of most value to me is my ability to stay on top of the town’s finances, in whatever detail I desire, without having to rely on others,” said Dave Brenner, Longboat Key’s vice mayor. “It also helps me respond to citizen’s financial questions promptly.”
When the town experienced a change in leadership, there was a push to share the same information to the public. In mid February, the town launched an online graph, using fiscal data that feeds directly from the finance department’s database, to display revenues and expenses. The chart is publicly accessible.
“We are providing a high-level executive overview in a simple way,” said Kathi Pletzke, the town’s IT director. “You don’t need a business degree to tell if we’re on track with our budget with the tool.”
The tables and charts, which cost about 25 hours of development time, or approximately $2,500, provide the most current view of the town’s budgeted revenues and expenditures, as well as year-to-date amounts. The online tool, funded by IT’s professional services budget, includes five fiscal years of current and historical expenditure data along with graphing tools and the ability to export the data to Excel for further analysis.
Since the graphical tool launched, it has received 404 pageviews, which Pletzke said is significant for the town’s population of less than 8,000 residents. Site visitors can view the town’s three major funds — general, utility and building, plus all other funds — in pie chart format.
“People will pay attention to where we are in our spending,” said Sue Smith, the town’s finance director. “I don’t expect everybody will go to the website and look at this, but those who do are going to have a sense of whether we’re on target or not with our estimates.”
If specific expenses go over the allocated budget, the system highlights the variance for the web user, and Smith or the town’s budget analyst can include a narrative or report for explanation.
Part of the challenge with the fiscal transparency application will be the timing gap between funding posted to the data stream and the date in which the town can make use of the funds. For example, the data may reflect that the state provided money to Longboat Key in September; however, the town may not actually receive the funding until the following month.
“I think that this is something that should be disclosed on the website,” said Smith. “Aside from this and the narratives that we may have to occasionally provide, there’s no labor involved in delivering these pie charts. As long as we’re posting revenues on a timely basis, then it’s accurate data. The charts changes daily.”
Citizens have favorite categories to examine, according to Smith and Pletzke, including how the town is spending funding for electricity, travel and training, professional services, office supplies, subscriptions to memberships and legal services.
“We always have a handful of concerned citizens,” Pletzke said. “Now, at the town hearings, they can download the info to Excel [spreadsheet] and see a five-year history. They can see that we’re not hiding anything. We’re not wasting anything. And so it’s minimized those criticisms. It’s out there for them to diagram.”
Since its launch, Longboat Key employees have received numerous inquiries from others across the state about implementing a similar application. Inquiring municipalities include Citrus County, the City of North Port, the City of Ormond Beach and the City of Palm Bay.