Liberty Twp. became the first Butler County government and sixth Ohio township to announce it has forged a partnership with Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel's OhioCheckbook.com program, a website that now only shows state expenditures. By Labor Day, Mandel said local governments will be added to the website in order to create a one-stop-shop of government spending on all levels.
Other Butler County communities — Hamilton and Monroe — are already placing some or all of their financial records online, and soon the city of Middletown will too.
Ohio went from being one of the worst to being the best when it comes to fiscal transparency, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
But only a small fraction of the nearly 4,000 governmental agencies — such as townships, cities, counties, school district and public universities — have committed to the program. As of last week, only 135 local governmental agencies have made the commitment, which will be funded by Mandel’s office and cost local governments nothing outside of getting the fiscal information to the state treasurer’s office.
Having the power of the state treasurer’s office is why Liberty Twp. could do this, said Fiscal Officer Pam Quinlisk.
“This is nothing we could have done on our own,” she said.
Liberty Twp. Trustee Christine Matacic said the online checkbook “is a fantastic tool” for anyone to see how tax dollars are spent.
“It’s nice to give our taxpayers increased accessibility to this information,” she said. “It can only help to empower people, which I believe is a great benefit to creating a transparent environment.”
Mandel said transparency is what the public wants, especially when it comes to spending tax dollars. He said public officials have a choice: “We can either be Blockbuster video or we can be Netflix; we can be taxi cab drivers or we can be Uber.”
“Technology is advancing so quickly that over the next couple of years citizens are going to demand a high level of transparency; they’re going to demand to see how money is being spent at all levels of government,” Mandel said during a press conference Monday, July 6, at the Liberty Twp. Administration Building.
While Liberty Twp. is the first Butler County government to participate in the OhioCheckbook.com program, it's not the only entity interested in participating.
The city of Monroe launched its version of the fiscal transparency website at the beginning of the year, and the city of Hamilton launched its site a couple of months ago. Both entities use Opengov.com.
“I think it’s just another tool that cities can use to get information to its citizens,” said Monroe City Manager William Brock. “It’s not information that was particularly hidden in the past, but it’s just a better way to provide that information to the public.”
Brock said he had called the Ohio Treasurer’s office a few months ago after Mandel made the announcement, but have yet to hear back. Mandel’s office said more than 550 local governments have inquired about the program since his letter to more than 18,000 local government officials was mailed in April.
Hamilton Finance Director Tom Vanderhorst said the city launched its Opengov.com budget portal not because of the Ohio Treasurer's office, but because, "We're trying to be more transparent."
But the importance of this much information will be determined by the citizens, said Vanderhorst.
“The citizens are going to determine how important it is by often the use it,” Vanderhorst said. “And transparency promotes credibility. This tells you exactly how tax dollars are being spent.”
Vanderhorst said the city is interested in partnering with the state, but will also maintain its budget portal.
“It’s one of those things that is evolving today that records are more acceptable, and the public is looking for ways to access this type of information,” said David Creamer, Miami University Senior vice president of Finance and Business Services.
Creamer said Miami University is likely a couple months away from announcing a partnership with Mandel’s office, but have some technical issues to work out with the Opengov system and the state’s reporting system.
Hamilton City Schools Treasurer Robert Hancock said the district is in a "wait and see" mode before jumping into the OhioCheckbook.com program.
"We'll watch to see what everyone else is doing," he said. "The financial forecast that all school districts are doing, that' really is the road map on where you are and where you're headed."
Ohio Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Twp., was one of the state lawmakers who pushed Mandel’s idea in the General Assembly to allow the treasurer’s office to publish the state’s checkbook online. He said it was a common sense idea.
“It takes a lot of guts as a local government to do that,” Coley said. “These guys are fearless, and that’s why we have Liberty Center going in, and that’s why we have so many innovative things happening in Liberty Twp.”