Overall local governments, which include municipal governments, school districts and county governments, do a good job of making public financial information available. Official financial documents like budgets, audited financial statements and Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs) are posted and updated in government websites in such frequency that it seems e-government is no longer the exception but the norm.
The availability of financial information, however, is only one part of the open government solution. Publishing financial documents online for the citizenry to access is a significant step towards increasing transparency in the governmental process but less so for increasing accountability. Having access to the information is the first step, making the information understandable and useful so that it can be actionable is the next.
Accessing financial documents has become fairly easy these days. The problem is in order to make sense of the information you’ve gathered, you need to have an advanced understanding of public finance and accounting. The governments who publish the data and the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB), the standard setting body that writes the rules on how government accounting and disclosure, assume that users (the citizenry, public officials and creditors) of this information are knowledgeable about public finance and accounting. And while public officials and creditors have professional staff to assist them in analyzing this information, most of us do not.
This is where Gasbie comes in; Gasbie bridges this technical gap. It will make the financial information that is available more accessible to the public so that we can hold our governments accountable.
Gasbie’s mission is to collect and make available all of the public financial documents made available by local governments (school districts, county government and city/town government). In addition, Gasbie will not only collect and digitize local municipal financial documents; it will also provide an easy-to-use analytical data visualization platform to assist its users in understanding the information.
Gasbie’s main goal is to make publicly available financial information more accessible to the general public. In doing so, Gasbie will:
- Inform the public about how public dollars are spent in order to spur meaningful public debate by the citizens and their elected representatives
- Increase transparency and accountability in local municipal finance
Gasbie’s initial focus will be on property taxes. Why property taxes? Local governments (municipal governments, school districts and county governments) fund their operations primarily through property taxes. Property taxes, for the most part, pay for most of the public services that we use on a daily basis. Property taxes pay for public safety services such as police and fire. It also is the main source of public financing for schools.
Unlike federal or state governments that are reliant on income taxes, there is a very direct connection between property taxes and local government expenditures. If you are unemployed, the federal government, or the state government where you live, loses out on potential revenue—any percentage of zero is zero and, after all, they can’t force you to work (at least not yet!). Local governments, on the other hand, do not have this constraint. Taxes are levied on all property in the jurisdiction regardless of your ability to pay. If the local government projects a potential deficit during the budgeting process, they can simply increase the property tax levy. Federal and state governments facing the same dilemma, in contrast, resort to deficit spending and hope for the economy to get better.
Through Gasbie, users will be able to analyze the relationship between the major spending categories of what makes up a typical property tax bill: county, municipal and school tax levies. Moreover, Gasbie will enable its users to dig further into the details of each category and show which program/function had an increase/decrease in revenues and expenses thereby contributing to the increase/decrease in the property tax levy.
Public finance and accounting is a very broad and deep topic area—much too big for a fledgling start-up to consume all at once. Our initial set of data will be based on New Jersey, Gasbie’s home state. We will also be asking others to join us in this effort as well. If you are interested in lending us a hand, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
This project would not have been possible without the Sunlight Foundation’s support through their OpenGov Grant program. They have been instrumental in making Gasbie a reality. We are eternally grateful that they have chosen to support our project.
Dalton F. Laluces is the Project Lead and Founder of Gasbie — a Sunlight Foundation OpenGov Grantee. He is also a management consultant with over a decade of experience in the government and non-profit sector. Dalton has a Masters Degree in Public Administration from the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University and is also currently working on a Masters Degree in Governmental Accounting at the Rutgers Business School. You can reach him at Dalton@gasbie.com
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