Ohio governments may put budgeting data online

A bill package that would encourage local governments to put budgeting data online is making headway with the state government while local officials have mixed feelings about it.

The series of bills form the DataOhio Initiative, would require financial information for counties, cities and townships be put online in a searchable format previously unavailable to the public.

The bills, House Bills 321, 322, 323 and 324, are sponsored by Rep. Mike Duffey, R-Worthington, and Rep. Christina Hagan, R-Alliance, in the hopes of encouraging more governmental transparency.

Alison Goebel, associate director at Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC), said the organization, which is a nonprofit and nonpartisan group, supports the series of bills to make information even more accessible to the public.

“We are interested in the bills because we think they will help local governments and the state of Ohio make decisions based on the way the information is reported and standardize the way the information is reported,” she said. “It will help make an apples-to-apples comparison. (Now) it’s hard to make a comparison.”

Goebel added that at a time when resources are limited in local governments, the state is asking many local governments to do something they’ve never done before, but resources are available to offset any cost incurred.

“Sponsors (of the bill) acknowledge there may be some costs associated with (getting online),” she said.

That cost is supposed to be offset with a $10,000 grant available through state funding, said Alex Penrod, legislative aide to Duffey.

“As far as the $10,000 goes, by taking (it), you’re agreeing…(that) if you say you’re going to put A, B and C records up, the only thing you’re responsible for is posting those records,” she said. “As long as you do what you say you’re going to do, you’re eligible for the money.”

Penrod added that the money, a total of $12.5 million for the year, is available for those who “follow the rules.”

“It’s a first come, first served basis,” she said. “There’s an amount of money available each year. If you apply…it’s an auto acceptance, as long as you follow the rules.”

Penrod said the goals of the bills are for an increase in transparency.

“The goals are generally just making the government more open,” she said. “These are records anyone can get anyway. We’re asking for a format that’s more easily available, easily readable and easily understandable. It’s to make it so that it will be good for townships; they can say, ‘We pay our employees this amount, and this township pays this amount.’ It makes it easier to compare amongst themselves and easier for citizens to get more information they may be interested in.”

Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said he thinks the goals of the bills are positive, but there might be some issues, which local governments have shared concerns over.

“There may be issues with compliance in some political subdivisions who don’t have a lot of staff with which to comply,” Thompson said. “Some local governments have come with concerns about that.”

Marietta Township Trustee John Lankford is one expressing concern over several factors that could affect the township posting fiscal information.

“Our biggest thing is our fiscal officer is part-time,” he said. “My biggest concern is how much manpower this will take and how much time it would take.”

Despite staffing concerns, Thompson said it’s good to be an open book for those who wish to look, and though there hasn’t yet been a vote on the floor for the bills, he’s in favor of transparency.

“There’s been some issues (in the past) with a lack of transparency with the way business is done,” he said. “I’m always in favor of letting the public know how we do what we do.”

Washington County Commissioner David White said he hasn’t seen much on the DataOhio Initiative yet.

“I don’t disagree with the premise of it all,” he said. “Public information is a very easy request to make and people shouldn’t have an issue…I’m certainly not opposed to the public getting all of the information they can, but it seems kind of minor to me.”

Grandview Township Trustee David Beaver said Ohio townships have lost funding over the years and the money might be better used for something other than putting fiscal information online.

” I think (the money) could be used in a more practical way,” he said.

In contrast, Marietta Mayor Joe Matthews said the bills could be a good thing and are something that should be looked into for the city.

“I’m always interested if it’s something that’s beneficial to the city,” he said. “If it’s beneficial and (funds are) available, we’d be interested in looking at that through the development department to apply for grants.”

House Bill 321 will have state and local public agencies adhering to an open data standard, which will make information easier to access and search. Under House Bill 322 they will have to provide a uniform chart of accounts, which will make uniformity and comparability of financial information easier. House Bill 323 deals with the formation of an online catalog, which will provide data sets, tutorials and tools. Lastly, House Bill 324 provides the grant money to local governments as an incentive to provide budgetary, staffing and compensation data online.

Greg Lawson, policy analyst with the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, said the organization has always shown interest in making the government more transparent, something these bills will capitalize on.

“We’ve always been very interested in public government accountability and transparency,” he said. “You can’t have accountability without transparency. Anything that can shine the light on the inner workings (of the government) is a good thing.”

Lawson said there is the potential for a huge impact on local governments as the program gets up and running.

“We think that, conceptionally, the idea is very sound,” he said. “It’s long overdue and it will be helpful for researchers and average citizens.”

Though the idea is pretty sound, Penrod said there is no website that is functional to do a trial run to see how things would be entered. She said state representatives are meeting with various groups to find out what the website will actually look like and how it will work. The hope is for the bills to pass the House before they retire for their summer recess so the Senate can debate it over the summer, she said.

Penrod said the longer it takes for the bill to pass, it will take even longer to form the 13-member board who will oversee the DataOhio Initiative.

Lawson said there may be some challenges associated with the bills that could be seen as drawbacks.

“The challenges are from a more technical aspect and getting things up and running,” Lawson said. “It needs to have a way you can make comparisons across jurisdictions and make meaningful comparisons. Columbus has higher public safety allocations than, say, Marietta…Some townships are very big and have a lot of people who live there…and there are those that don’t.”

Lawson said for that reason, there needs to be some context to make those comparisons, and it will be a bit challenging.

He added that also the skill set needed to use the programs and software to create a uniform chart of financial information may be harder to find in some areas than others.

Lawson said that some drawbacks are unavoidable.

“(These bills) will allow you to understand things even better to improve the process over time,” he said. “Certainly, to an extent these are negatives, but they are negatives you can’t avoid if you want to accomplish what is the overall right thing to do.”