The city of Johnston’s operating budget, available for public viewing through Johnston Open Finance.Screencap/City of Johnston
Johnston residents keeping an eye on the city’s finances have a new tool to simplify the process.
The city’s public Open Finance dashboard publishes the city’s entire budget and spending line items — down to the vendor and check amount, Finance/Human Resources Director Teresa Rotschafer said.
Starting a few years ago, City Council members had asked Rotschafer how the city’s finance department could show greater budget transparency. Johnston has an operating budget of $59.19 million. Rotschafer asked finance clerk Brett Klein to explore what the city could do.
“We previewed several products that are out there,” Rotschafer said. “The issue for staff was that the compatibility with our current finance software would have required staff time and more involvement than I wanted to have take place. Our staff is lean here in the finance department, and the ability to convert the information into another software program and get it uploaded was going to take, in my opinion, too much time and effort.”
Two years ago they learned the city’s existing software provider Tyler Technologies purchased one of those products by Socrata, and it sparked interest for the staff to try again, Klein said. Johnston was among the first cities to launch the Open Finance portal with Tyler Technologies; Dubuque has also launched the same tool by Socrata, called Open Expenses Dubuque.
“We’re here to serve and we don’t mind getting calls and questions, but the public are reluctant to [call]. They always say, ‘I don’t want to bother you,’” Klein said. “It’s hard for a layperson who isn’t intimately familiar with municipal finance and budgeting to sort through that. Here, it’s just like your checkbook. … Here’s your expenses, here’s your revenues.”
Johnston had previously published the budget handbook online, but “it probably wasn’t very user-friendly to a layman,” Rotschafer said. “When you go into Open Finance now, you can just see the police department and click on it. … It’s clear, it’s searchable and they can drill down into what they want to see.”
The department had a soft launch of the platform about six months ago and went public in mid-December. The platform now updates the city’s budget once a week, which includes a view of the revenue budget, staff wages and detailed breakdowns on varied categories such as economic development, emergency departments and utilities services.
“We thought all along that this should be a product for citizens and vendors — maybe vendors will look and see what other vendors were paid. It just hasn’t been around long enough yet for us to know exactly all of its capabilities or all of the options we have available to us,” Rotschafer said.
“We want people to know that we really are an open book,” she added.