Santa Fe, N.M., Serves as an Example that Cities Need More than Just Open Data

Amid the push to make as much data public available as possible, cities need to make sure people know what the numbers actually mean.

by Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican / October 3, 2016

(TNS) — A new website designed to revolutionize how the public accesses and understands the city of Santa Fe’s finances could leave people scratching their heads and wondering whether spending is way up, despite an insistence by city officeholders that money is tight.

The OpenGov website, launched in August by Mayor Javier Gonzales, creates the impression that spending in the current fiscal year has increased by about $63 million over last year.

This year’s budget is actually millions of dollars lower, but the transparency website leaves taxpayers in the dark.

The website, santafenm.gov/opengov, offers no explanation of the numbers it lists. It’s a collection of figures and charts that require the public to navigate through other financial documents, including audits and monthly reports, or to contact the city directly to get the full story, a process that only adds to the bureaucracy at City Hall.

“I think the metaphor of drinking from a fire hydrant is appropriate here,” Oscar Rodriguez, who recently resigned as the city’s finance director to take a job with the New Mexico Finance Authority, said last week. “But I think it’s better [to give the public access to the city’s financial information]. I think it’s more transparency than to not have it.”

City spokesman Matt Ross acknowledged the large volume of financial information could create confusion. But, he said, the city government is in “new territory … putting out an unprecedented level of information and data.”

“It’s kind of a new page in transparency for us,” Ross said. “What comes with that, especially as people get used to using a new website with a lot of different tools on it, there’s going to be some confusion, there’s going to be some questions.”

Regardless, the administration believes it’s worthwhile, he said.

“We just want to make sure we’re emphasizing being available to answer questions when confusion comes up, and making sure that we’re there to provide support to the public when they are seeing something that doesn’t quite click or doesn’t make sense to them at first glance,” Ross said.

Take, for example, a page with the city’s annual expenses and revenues. The page shows that the city spent nearly $246 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30, and that spending in the current fiscal year is budgeted at $309 million, nearly a 26 percent increase.

The page reflects that last year’s numbers are actual expenses and this year’s numbers are budgeted.

“Right off the bat, you’re talking apples and oranges,” Rodriguez said.

But the website doesn’t explain why there’s such a huge fluctuation when, ideally, the variance between a previous years’ spending and the current budget should be closer to 5 percent.

Part of the explanation has to do with the city’s past “poor budgeting” practices, said Rodriguez, who hopes that will be corrected with a series of reforms he put into place after he joined the city staff less than two years ago.

City departments budgeted for a host of capital projects and some operational expenses but carried the money forward when those projects weren’t completed.

“The organization had traditionally just assumed that, because the money was approved for it, they could move it into the next year without necessarily executing it,” he said. “That concept there accounted for the vast majority of that difference.”

For example, he said, the city budgeted about $8.4 million last year for a reconstruction project on Cerrillos Road.

“It was all budgeted last year,” Rodriguez said. “At the end of last year, they only spent like $3.5 million. It didn’t have to do so much with the execution of the project as the way it was budgeted.”

Despite having millions of dollars from projects that weren’t completed, the city couldn’t use it to close a $15 million budget gap this year that led to cutbacks and higher fees, including parking rates that sparked public outcry.

“Much of the carryovers were occurring in capital budgets and federal grants, which cannot be applied to the general fund, but contribute to the gap,” Ross said. “But there was a portion of the carryovers that were happening in the general fund, about $3.5 million that went unspent last year to be exact, and that amount was in fact applied to the deficit.”

Other factors have contributed to the variance, including that “hardly any of the capital budget” was included in last year’s overall operating budget, he said.

“It’s a pretty incredible thing to say, but that was what was happening,” Rodriguez said, adding that staff would enter into a contract and then ask the City Council to ratify the expenditure after the fact.

City officials have said past budgeting practices contributed to the city’s money problems. Last year, Gonzales told the Rotary Club of Santa Fe that the city used “bridging strategies,” including siphoning surplus revenue collected by the city’s water utility. It also used bond proceeds “to hide strategic weaknesses in our financial and budgetary policies.”

Rodriguez said the city’s decision to provide the financial data on the new website without a detailed explanation was deliberate.

“I’ll tell you this, it was tempting to try and explain to people and to put stuff in there,” he said. “But I think out of concern that the question would then be, ‘Well, why are you trying to make it seem like this when the numbers show something very different?’ We said, ‘Let’s assume that the public can use this and will use this as they want to and let them deal with it and we’ll deal with questions that they should have, but let’s not presuppose, let’s not spoon-feed the public our analysis of what those numbers are.’”

In other words, the city wanted to provide as much information as possible and let members of the public develop their own opinions but still be available to answer questions. The new website allows people to contact the city with comments or questions.

Rodriguez said the website is “as accurate as the city can be.”

“I think the opengov tells you a lot, but you’ve got to really truly be able to know what’s in front of you to get to any kind of conclusions,” he said.

Ross said the point of the website is “just to get the numbers out there and make them available to people.” He said city officials made themselves available to answer questions from The New Mexican and would do the same for members of the public.

“We’ll continue to do that with any questions that arise in the future,” he said. “You never know what folks are going to be particularly interested in and what questions they’re going to have. The important thing is making sure the data is all out there.”

©2016 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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