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SAINT LOUIS – The city of St. Louis received a failing grade for spending transparency, according to a new report released today by the MoPIRG Foundation. The report reviews Saint Louis’ progress toward comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility.
“St. Louis scored very low in our study because it provides very little additional information beyond what is provided in the city’s standard budget documents. The city lacks checkbook-level city spending information. St. Louis should prioritize transparency efforts in order to catch up with the advancing standards of Transparency 2.0.” said Alec Sprague, Field Organizer for MoPIRG.
The report, “Transparency in City Spending: Rating the Availability of Online Government Data in America’s Largest Cities,” reviews and grades the nation’s thirty largest cities on how effectively they allow the public to track budgets, contracting, subsidies, grants and requests for quality-of-life services.
The “F” grade nonetheless recognizes that St. Louis provides basic budget documents online and has a service request center that allows residents to notify city officials of quality-of-life issues that need fixing. The city fails to provide checkbook-level city spending information and there is plenty of room for improvement. For example, St. Louis should provide checkbook-level spending data that is searchable by city department, keyword, and vendor and is downloadable for data analysis. The city should, also, post historical expenditure data from previous fiscal years and provide tax subsidy information that lists the benefits specific companies receive from the city’s tax credits, exemptions, abatements and other tax subsidies. The city should develop a one-stop transparency website to centralize city spending information and make it easier for citizens to access such information.
The report found that 17 of America’s 30 most populous cities provide online databases of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail. Three cities received “A” grades and lead the pack in delivering easy-to-access, encompassing information on government spending: New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. Four additional cities received failing grades, indicating that they offer little or no spending data online: Atlanta, Detroit, Sacramento, and Cleveland. Kansas City received a “C” grade.
“The ability to see how government spends its funds is fundamental to democracy. Transparency in government spending checks corruption, bolsters public confidence, improves responsiveness, and promotes greater effectiveness and fiscal responsibility,” said Sprague.
“I hear from many Saint Louis residents that they are expecting a higher level of technology integrated into the services that the city provides,” Noted Scott Ogilvie, Alderman for the 24th Ward. “We have tremendous potential for improvement in many of these areas.”
The report makes a series of recommendations for cities to follow in order to achieve spending transparency, including:
• Cities should provide online databases of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail.
• Checkbook-level data should be searchable and downloadable.
• Cities should provide web visitors with copies of contracts between vendors and the city.
• Cities should disclose the tax subsidies awarded to individual companies and recipients.
• Cities should maintain a central transparency portal for all city spending tools and documents.
• Cities should allow residents to view service requests submitted by other residents and the city’s responses to those requests.
“City spending has a profound impact on residents’ lives through basic government functions such as policing, sanitation and public health. Spending transparency can help Saint Louis residents hold their elected leaders accountable and ensure that tax dollars are well spent,” added Sprague.
The new study extends MoPIRG’s annual reporting on state government transparency, which since 2010 has compared Missouri’s spending transparency to the other 49 states: http://mopirg.org/reports/mop/following-money-2012
The “Transparency in City Spending” report can be downloaded at http://mopirgfoundation.org/reports/mof/transparency-city-spending .
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