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Following the Money in New Jersey Cities:Online Budget Transparency in Local Government
by Gideon Weissman, Frontier Group, Dan Xie and Arielle Mizrahi, NJPIRG Student Chapters, and Jeff Inglis
The ability to see how government uses the public purse is fundamental to democracy. Transparency in government spending checks corruption, bolsters public confidence, improves responsiveness, and promotes greater effectiveness and fiscal responsibility. In New Jersey, both the Legislature and the courts have declared that transparency is critical to citizens’ oversight of government. According to New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, the public policy of this state strongly supports transparency.
Municipalities across the country have been moving toward making their checkbooks easily accessible to the public by posting government spending information through on-line transparency portals. Yet, none of New Jersey’s 15 most populous municipalities – which are home to 20 percent of the state’s population and spend more than $3 billion in public funds every year – has an online open checkbook that meets modern standards of government transparency.
New Jersey residents deserve better. Major New Jersey cities, with help and leadership from the state of New Jersey, should make more information about government spending readily available to their residents online in a manner that is easy to download, understand, compile and analyze.
New Jersey’s 15 largest municipalities – Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Edison, Woodbridge, Lakewood, Toms River, Hamilton, Clifton, Trenton, Camden, Brick, Cherry Hill, and Passaic – lag significantly behind the national trend toward government open checkbooks.
- None of them provides an online checkbook of the sort that has become the national standard for municipal government transparency, adopted by communities of all sizes, from 5,600-person Wellston, Ohio, to New York City.
- 10 of the 15 municipalities provide online copies of the “User-Friendly Budget Document” mandated by state law. Only five of the municipalities – Brick, Clifton, Edison, Jersey City and Trenton – properly comply with the state regulations on how to post those documents online.
- All municipalities provide basic PDF copies of their most recent budgets through their websites.
- Just one city (Trenton) provides copies of contracts awarded to private businesses that perform public services, and it is not clear whether all contracts are provided. Edison Township provides a historical record of vendor bids containing detailed information, although it does not provide contract language or information about the ultimate contract awarded. No other city provides any descriptions of the goods and services purchased under contract.
- None of the cities provides information on the number, value or recipients of any available city tax expenditures. These costs include tax credits, deferments and exemptions that reduce city revenue but are not usually reviewed annually alongside regular spending decisions.
- None of the cities provides any accounting of the benefits expected to accrue to the public as a result of tax expenditures, nor any evidence of systematically evaluating the success or failure of those investments of public dollars.
Following our earlier studies of government spending in the states and in the country’s largest cities, this report evaluates the progress of New Jersey’s largest cities toward “Transparency 2.0” – a standard of all-encompassing, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility.
Twelve scoring criteria were used to measure the breadth of information each city provides online and the information’s searchability. Based on these findings, we assigned each city a number grade from zero to 100 and a corresponding letter grade from “A” to “F.” (See Table ES-1 for the list of cities and grades. See Methodology for details of the grading and scoring process.)
Jersey City ranked first among the state’s 10 most populous cities for online budget transparency, followed by Trenton and Edison. None of the state’s biggest municipalities, however, received a passing grade when evaluated according to modern standards of transparency.
- Jersey City and Newark are the only municipalities with a centralized transparency website offering open data available for citizens to download and use or analyze as they see fit. These sites offer useful information on a variety of topics, but when it comes to financial information, they offer only top-line spending totals by city department.
- None of the 15 municipalities provides searchable budget information, nor do they provide detailed budget information downloadable in a format suitable for data analysis. Most of New Jersey’s top municipalities’ budget information is provided in PDF format, which does not allow for easy analysis by citizens, non-profits or journalists.
Table ES-1. How New Jersey’s 15 Largest Municipalities Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data
Without full, readily accessible information about government spending, New Jerseyans cannot properly oversee and weigh in on how their local governments spend taxpayer dollars. To allow their residents to easily access comprehensive information on how their money is spent, New Jersey’s largest cities – and all its municipalities – should take significant steps to improve financial transparency and accountability.
This should include providing at least the level of transparency given to state government spending in New Jersey and would ideally include adoption of all of the best practices of “Transparency 2.0.”
The governments of New Jersey’s largest municipalities should:
- Immediately post their state-mandated User-Friendly Budget Documents for all available years, and make available future years’ documents as soon as they are created.
- Continue to post their budget documents online as they become available, and to keep those documents online in the future.
- Build online systems for providing checkbook-level spending data, providing transaction details, search functionality, and data downloading.
The New Jersey state government also has an important role to play in promoting municipal transparency. New Jersey state officials should provide technical assistance to municipalities in their transparency efforts, and should invite municipalities and other government agencies to add their financial data to the state’s existing Open Data Center, at data.nj.gov. State officials should also implement the “Bulletin NJ” website required by Assembly Bill 3128 passed in 2011, which would serve as a state repository of local bidding and contract information.