Butler County, Ohio, Communities Are Putting Checkbooks Online, but Not Many Are Looking

Despite some Butler County, Ohio, communities not getting many views on their public financial books, officials say the transparency is still worth it.

by Denise G. Callahan, Dayton Daily News / April 13, 2018
Courtesy Treasurer of Ohio

(TNS) — Some Butler County, Ohio, communities that have opened their financial books to the public online aren’t getting very many “visits” from their constituents, but officials say transparency is still worth it.

Most of the 14 jurisdictions that have their finances online are getting the service for free through Treasurer Josh Mandel’s OpenCheckbook. But the four largest cities — Fairfield, Hamilton, Middletown and Monroe — as well as West Chester Twp. opted to contract separately with the state’s provider OpenGov to get additional information on their sites. Butler County has had the most views — 7,156 — since it went live in January 2016.

The communities that contracted separately with OpenGov are reporting different numbers than those available through the treasurer’s office. For example, the treasurer shows West Chester Twp. — they bought a three-year $152,000 package last year — has had 338 views and 28 unique users since they went live in October. However, spokeswoman Barb Wilson was able to get some numbers directly from the provider and she said they have had 3,291 visits to their portal.

People can reach the portals via the jurisdictions’ own website or directly through the state checkbook, hence the difference in number reporting.

Monroe was the first jurisdiction to partner with the California-based transparency tool provider — the city paid OpenGov $4,900 for their services last year — when they put their budgets online in 2014. City Manager Bill Brock said they are hoping to get their checkbook on the site by year’s end.

Hamilton’s finances went online in May 2015, the city paid $16,000 in each of the first two years and $19,000 annually for the three renewal years of the $89,000 deal. According to OpenGov since the portal went live the city has had 55 users and 2,959 page views but the state has recorded 367 unique users through their checkbook.

One of those users is Ashley Willis, she said as a financial adviser, she “loves” the tool but more importantly it keeps governmental officials honest.

“I like that I can surf through and I know what’s going on,” she said. “It’s very transparent, I know what’s going on in my government. It’s just easy to know exactly what the city is doing.”

Tyler Roark, Hamilton’s budget manager, said the city wanted a more robust tool that also gives budget information and a wealth of other financial data beyond just the checkbook, that’s why they bought the enhanced program. As the five-year deadline approaches in 2020 he said they are looking into add-ons.

“We want to enhance it and continue to provide the transparency initiative,” Roark said.

Middletown also inked a three-year, $33,000 deal to create the financial website where residents can track all of the city’s spending and other financial data, including budgets, balance sheets and other transactions in 2015. According to information culled from Mandel’s office the city’s checkbook has received 237 views since January 2017. The city did not provide the Journal-News with numbers from OpenGov.

City Manager Doug Adkins said the number of views are not what’s important here.

“Our goal is to provide access and transparency. The number of people who choose to look is not something I can control and am only mildly interested in,” Adkins said. “We have our budget, quarterly departmental reports, city checkbook and the enhanced OpenGov package. We have multiple social media and web page access points for people who want to know almost anything that their city government is doing. That’s our goal, to provide access and transparency. We feel we do a great job of that.”

Fairfield also chose to contract separately with OpenGov for about $22,000 a year for three years for an enhanced portal.

Mandel’s cost to build the state’s online tool was almost $814,000 and the state paid a onetime $975,000 licensing fee for the system and pays an annual maintenance fee of $400,000 to $975,000, depending on the number of jurisdictions that participate.

Mandel’s communications director Chris Berry said the state’s portal has had nearly a million searches on the OhioCheckbook.com website since it debuted in 2014. Mandel offered the service to 3,900 cities, counties, school districts, townships and other local governments across the state at no cost to them in 2015.

West Chester Twp. researched different financial transparency tools for some time before choosing what could be described as the Cadillac OpenGov plan because they will soon offer more than just financial data for public consumption.

Reports about crime, zoning permits, fire runs and other data will be going up on the tool soon. They also spent money on components they can use internally for budgeting purposes.

“You’re going to be able to do some extraordinary things here with respect to things like mapping crime locations and seeing the heat maps and what type of crime,” Trustee Mark Welch said after the website went live last October. “This is ultimately going to make West Chester a better community with not only transparency of the dollars but transparency of our way of life.”

Of the 3,291 visits, Welch said he would like to see that number grow and perhaps they need to put a tutorial video on their website to guide their residents through the information.

“Getting the word out and then showing people how to use it will make this a more and more powerful tool,” he said.

Joe Roualdes with California-based OpenGov said Hamilton and West Chester have the right idea — continually tweaking — for making the tool more relevant for its residents. He said if governments just launch the tool and let it sit, people will forget about it.

“Constantly pointing back to it as a resource for taxpayers when they are talking about it in the community or when they’re posting on social media,” he said. “People start to use it as a resource and see it as a resource. If they just launch it and they don’t publish a lot of reports consistently over time, it’s kind of out of sight out of mind.”

When Butler County went live on Mandel’s checkbook not all of the offices opened their books. All of the departments under the commissioners direct control are on the checkbook as well as the auditor, coroner, mental health and addiction, treasurer and veteran services. The county engineer and recorder’s offices should be up shortly.

Clerk of Courts Mary Swain’s Assistant Chief Deputy Joe Statzer said the courts, a separate branch of the government, are different.

“Mandel’s idea is very good, it’s just it doesn’t fit every category of government,” he said. “Especially when it comes to the courts and clerk of courts.”

Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser said since some of his expenses — like payments to confidential informants — can’t be shared with the public, there is really no good way to open his books on the tool.

“If there was method that could discriminate between matters that have to be for purposes of security kept private through myself and the state auditors, I would be happy to participate in it,” he said.

Talawanda is the only school district on the state checkbook from this county, but Lakota may be joining the ranks soon. Lakota spokeswoman Lauren Boettcher said they are working on another initiative that could include some form of online financial tool and they have been in touch with Mandel’s office.

Liberty Twp. — where finances have been viewed 2,804 times since 2015 — jumped on the tool when Mandel made it available. Trustee Board President Tom Farrell said he hopes even more people want to become involved in the workings of the township.

“As a public entity, our dollars are always our residents’ and (businesses') dollars and they have the right to know where every dollar goes,” Farrell said. “We’ve heard the saying we’re an open book, with the online Ohio checkbook it validates the statement and allows everybody easy access to the finances. Transparency builds trust.”

©2018 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.