Akron, Ohio, OKs Budgeting Software, Not the Cash to Fund It

City officials signed off on the use of new software that would give residents insights into city spending habits, but in a separate vote decided not to allocate the funds needed to actually implement it.

by Doug Livingston, Akron Beacon Journal / November 26, 2018
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(TNS) — In separate votes, majorities of Akron City Council have voted to approve but not fund software that would allow citizens to see where their tax dollars go and then submit their own version of the city's budget.

The software is an online dashboard that allows the public to manipulate, but not directly access, the city's finances. Residents and taxpayers can cut or boost spending in one area and then see how others are impacted, all while learning more about each municipal operation.

At least 70 American cities have adopted the Balancing Act program. Some offer testimonials crediting the program for boosting community engagement in campaigns to collect citizen input and buy-in before passing levies. Others, like Norfolk, Va., have credited the crowd-sourcing opportunity for identifying solutions that turn deficits into surpluses.

Akron would be the first in Ohio to implement the smart-city technology endorsed by the National League of Cities. But the council has now twice tabled or flat-out rejected paying the $8,500 cost of the software, which was narrowly approved without a dedicated funding source back in April. The annual subscription comes with a free 30-day trial.

City administrators and some on the council say Akron lacks the staff to manage the program. But the software developer says he'll do it all for free. The city can look over his shoulder for quality control.

Still others reject paying for the software with funds set aside each year, and never entirely used, for neighborhood grants. That council-led program was reduced this year from $100,000 to $40,000. Only one of the city's 10 wards so far this year has maxed out its share of the $1,000 grants. The remainder, which Councilman Russ Neal wants put toward purchasing the software, is rolled into the general fund.

Mayor Dan Horrigan's cabinet members say the public hasn't asked for a participatory budgeting tool and the city already reports spreadsheets and annual reports online, which admittedly get little traffic. They won't spend $8,500 on more software, even if the tax dollars come from council's budget.

"The real reason [for not funding the software] is because the administration doesn't want it," said Neal, who administrators say asks too many questions.

The eight-year councilman from West Akron has peppered Horrigan's first-term team with information requests about spending, even charging that no one outside the finance department can explain how millions of tax dollars navigate the city's many accounts. His questions have cast aspersions about six-figure contracts for painting fire hydrants and a multimillion-dollar lease of cell tower space approved so late last year that it reflected deficit spending for 2017, according to the Ohio Auditor's Office.

"We're always transparent with him," said Deputy Chief of Staff Annie McFadden. "We've had meetings with him on all of those topics. He just seems to ask the same questions if he doesn't like the answers."

The software funding debate, which began last month and is expected to continue Monday, has raised questions about the limits and responsibilities of Akron's legislative and executive branches of government.

In Neal's first funding request, Budget Committee Chair Mike Freeman said the city charter defines the powers of the council and the mayor. Freeman can't change that "anymore than I go to the snowplowing [division] and say, 'Now, you're going to use GMCs and not Fords.' "

Director of Finance Diane Miller-Dawson again pointed to insufficient staff. Even if funded, the software would be implemented "without our support," she said. Neal shook his head.

On Monday, when Neal reintroduced the current funding request, a tense exchange with Councilman Bob Hoch explored the limits of the council's authority.

"As council, we should be projecting a five-year budget on how we're going to grow the city's reserves. We don't do that," Neal said.

"That's not our responsibility," Hoch replied.

"Mr. Hoch, that is ..." Neal interjected as Hoch continued.

"The responsibility is to the mayor and his administration. I think with trying to do something like this and trying to tell them how to figure out the budgeting and everything is overstepping our boundaries," Hoch said.

"No, Mr. Hoch," Neal said. "We're supposed to work in conjunction with the administration. Council's responsibility is overseeing the city's assets and resources. That's why the administration comes to us to approve the budget. We're supposed to be able to provide the checks and balances to grow the reserves and make decisions."

Councilwoman Tara Samples supports the concept, but she abstained from voting on the funding request because her ward is the only city ward that has maxed out the neighborhood grants, from which Neal would use leftovers to pay for the software. President Margo Sommerville, who like Freeman voted for the software but not for funding it, said: "I don't like the idea of taking funds we've set aside for neighborhoods to buy budget software."

She suggested that Neal request the money in next year's budget. But despite Neal saying so in council meetings and emails, she and others didn't know the software's developer would do all the work at no additional cost.

"We gave them the fully staffed, easy-button option, if they wanted it," said Chris Adams, CEO of Engage Public, the Colorado-based creator of Balancing Act. Adams said he "heavily discounted" the package he's offering Akron because he met Neal and admired his desire to equip citizens with public information in an interactive way, letting the people assist in solving the city's pressing financial problems.

"I know Akron's had a tough time," said Adams, who's product has taken off in his hometown in Colorado, as well as towns in California, Virginia, North Carolina and Texas, but not the Midwest. "A lot of cities in that part of the country are in tough economic straits and I think the way to go is not hold information close but to share it with people and hold leadership accountable."

©2018 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.