Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel put the state’s books online in December 2014 and invited local jurisdictions to do the same one year ago.
Jared Borg, director of regional representatives for Mandel’s office, said some eye-opening government expenses funded by taxpayers turned up in the state’s finances.
“We saw this at the state level where there were some folks going to conferences that were in Hawaii when they could have gone to conferences in Cincinnati,” Borg said. “As well as there were folks staying at the Ritz Carlton when there is a Holiday Inn down the street.”
Butler County became the 13th Ohio county to join State Treasurer Josh Mandel's OhioCheckbook.com on Monday, but you won't find expenses from every county department on the site.
A visit to the Butler County checkbook page shows checks totalling $368.8 million for 2014 and 2015; however, there are several office holders and boards that haven't been added to the checkbook yet and a few who say their information will not be added.
Common Pleas Court Administrator Gary Yates said the public already has the ability to access the court budgets through the commissioners’ office and will not participate in the checkbook.
“As far as our other operations, we are not subject to some of the things other jurisdictions are because we are a separate unit of government,” he said. “That’s an individual choice of each area of government and the administrative branch, which is the commissioners have elected to do that and some of the office holders elected to do it, that’s up to them too, the court hasn’t had a chance to review it and decided not to do it when it became available a couple years ago.”
Clerk of Courts Mary Swain said she doesn’t know if it would be possible to post her expenditures because she operates from a different database than the Auditor’s Office, for example. The public can already view court costs on individual cases through the CourtView system on her website. Her budget — just like all other county budgets — is also available through the commissioners’ office, she said.
Like Yates, Swain’s Assistant Chief Deputy Joe Statzer said the courts, a separate branch of the government, are different.
“Mandel’s idea is very good, it’s just it doesn’t fit every category of government,” he said. “Especially when it come to the courts and prosecutors and clerk of courts.”
Prosecutor Mike Gmoser said he is more than willing to open his books up on the site, but he will have to redact some information. He said transparency is a “wonderful thing” but transactions with confidential informants and other expenses that involve investigations and prosecutions are not for public consumption.
The sheriff’s budget is the largest general fund budget in the county at around $33 million. Chief Tony Dwyer said they are studying the “ramifications” work-wise of posting the information and won’t be on the online checkbook any time soon, but they are discussing it.
Other office holders like Engineer Greg Wilkens and Recorder Danny Crank said they would be happy to join the other departments on the state checkbook, they just don’t know when that information will be posted.
There are currently 13 departments and offices on the website, and Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds said they will continue to tweak and update the county checkbook.
“There’s going to be a few offices that are going to put their data out and it’s going to continue to grow. This is just the first stage.”
More than 4,000 government entities, including cities, townships and school districts, have opened their books to the public through the website. The Republican treasurer said he has commitments from 480 other jurisdictions — including West Chester and Madison townships — to join the checkbook.
West Chester Twp. Spokeswoman Barb Wilson said their recently redesigned web page has a wealth of financial and demographic information, but the state checkbook was also something they wanted to participate in. She is not certain when their checkbook will go live.
“West Chester is committed to transparency and being fiscally responsible to the residents and businesses of our community. OhioCheckbook.com and similar tools help to further both of these goals…” Wilson said. “When launched as part of our website, OhioCheckbook.com will give interested residents a closer look at how their money is being spent and will hopefully foster even greater confidence in their local government.”
Elsewhere in the county, Hamilton, Liberty and Oxford townships and the Talawanda schools are already on the checkbook and several more communities say they will be going live at some point this year. The city of Trenton and Ross Twp. officials say they don't have the resources at this time to undertake the project, but they support the premise and could join the checkbook in the future.
"With the move, year-end reports due, beginning budget set-up and the fact that the fiscal officer is part time, she simply does not have the time to jump into it now," said Ross Twp. Administrator Bob Bass.
Officials in Monroe and Fairfield Twp. say they have already been working with Mandel’s office to get their finances on the checkbook.
Fairfield City Manager Mark Wendling said they have a number of projects going on right now but they will delve into the topic more closely this summer.
Oxford City Manager Doug Elliott said when Mandel first sent out the invitation to join the checkbook they declined because they felt they already provided a wide array of financial data on their website. They have reconsidered.
“This year we have re-evaluated that decision and have decided to participate since the OpenGov model provides an additional source of some of the same financial information and there is no cost to the city except for staff time to organize and upload the data,” Elliott said. “This will probably occur later this spring or earlier summer.”
Despite repeated attempts, Middletown officials declined to respond to the Journal-News’ requests for comment.