Tracking spending is a critical component of the duties of County Comptroller. However, the data isn’t always easily accessible to the public. As your next County Comptroller, I intend to bring a new level of transparency to County finances, enabling elected officials, vendors and the public to access current payment information with improved information technology.
What we have now
Currently, Ulster County provides online access to the agencies, titles, vendors and start date for current county contracts. You can see a list here of the largest contracts.
In addition, the County Comptroller releases information on County spending in quarterly reports. The vendor payments Appendix to the quarterly financial report does not tie payment to contract so you can’t tell how much of a contract has been paid out. The last of these quarterly spending Comptroller’s reports issued covered spending in the first three quarters of 2018 and can be found here. While it provides some transparency, the format of the release of this data makes it cumbersome to analyze.
What real access to data would look like
Thanks to modern information technology and cloud based storage, the payment data can be released as a data set, free to be downloaded and analyzed. Payment data releases should identify the timing and purpose of each payment to improve usefulness to policy makers, the public and vendors. Currently all payments to a vendor are grouped together, which does not make transparent the timing or purpose of any such payment. Furthermore, since a single vendor may have multiple contracts with the county there is no way to identify under which contract a vendor payment has been made.
Other municipalities have taken spending data transparency to a whole new level.
For example, here in the Hudson Valley, Dutchess County releases vendor invoices summary reports quarterly which groups payments by vendor. The NYC Comptroller’s Office has even implemented a system called Checkbook NYC, which releases all payments made by NYC within several weeks of payment. This system provides a substantial benefit to vendors of the City and their subcontractors allowing them to see when a claim has been paid. It also tracks spending in line with contracts and provides a comparison to year over year spending. Users of the system can look at payments by department or vendor and can even sign up to be notified of payments through scheduled alerts.
With a $95 billion budget NYC government’s impact on the economy of City government operations justify an elaborate tool such as Checkbook NYC which cost the City millions of dollars to develop. But the NYC Comptroller’s Office investment in Checkbook NYC was developed on an open source platform and the code is available on GitHub. At least one other county in the country has implemented portions of Checkbook NYC. Williamson, Texas has developed a stripped down dashboard tool that provides vendor payment history. Preliminary conversations with officials in the NYC Comptroller’s Office and Williamson County, Texas indicate that they were able to implement the system with modest financial resources, as well as strong collaboration with the county’s financial leadership to provide better access.
Real time, up-to-date, searchable, analyzable payment data would enable county legislators, vendors, subcontractors and the public to better understand Ulster County government and taxpayer dollars as they go out the door. It would remove layers of gatekeeping to help people understand where their tax dollars are going, and help all stakeholders have more productive conversations about budget issues. It is my intention as County Comptroller to bring improvements in financial transparency to the fore.