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New MoCo Open Budget Website Is Missing Key Component: Schools

By Aaron Kraut

Thursday - 8/7/2014, 11:40am  ET

Sources of funding for Montgomery County's Lot 31 parking garage project, via budgetMontgomeryMontgomery County’s new budget website translates to 90 languages, is available on mobile phones, shows what areas of the county are getting the most capital investment and can tell a user some of the most mundane information they could wish to know about how county government works.

(Want to know how much money the County Council has budgeted for printing this fiscal year? It’s $126,000.)

But what the first stage of the county government’s new “financial transparency suite” doesn’t have is operating budget information on what’s the biggest interest of many county residents: Montgomery County Public Schools.

“We’re aware it’s one of the foremost questions people have,” said Office of Management and Budget Director Jennifer Hughes, who along with a team of other county employees showed off the new website on Wednesday at Microsoft’s offices in Friendship Heights.

The first question after the presentation was about the MCPS operating budget, which makes up $2.28 billion (almost half) of the county’s overall $4.99 billion FY15 operating budget. Hughes told attendees it was also the first question County Executive Isiah Leggett had after seeing the website for the first time.

The website, which will be followed by related sites dedicated to county government spending and county government contracts, is a more user-friendly and understandable extension of the original open data initiative the county debuted in 2012.

Instead of budget data spread across a dozen or more spreadsheet columns, the new budgetMontgomery site allows users to see how operating and capital expenditures relate to each other in the forms of bar graphs, comparisons to Leggett’s recommended budget and, eventually, how this year’s budget stacks up against county spending in the future.

“The spreadsheet view is kind of daunting,” said Victoria Lewis, one of the project’s managers from the county’s Department of Technology Services. “You might come to conclusions that might not necessarily be the conclusions we’d want you to reach.”

Users can drill down to the tiniest expense of a single section of one county government department, share and embed the charts they’ve created and still have access to the raw data in spreadsheet form or the traditional PDF paper format that county officials have for years used to reference budget information.

“This started from the paper publication, really,” said Scott Coble, a project manager from Management and Budget. “It really started in looking at how much effort we put into making the paper publication.”

Hughes said she’s scheduled to talk to MCPS officials about sharing their data in the next few weeks, and that she’s optimistic they’ll agree to publish their information on the system. MCPS does publish an online PDF of its budget summary, which this fiscal year is 370 pages worth of detailed information about equipment purchases, personnel costs, a glossary of terms and other financial information.

Dan Hoffman, the county’s Chief Innovation Officer, said it was his hope that unveiling the new website would provide some pressure to independent government agencies such as MCPS and WSSC to provide budget data.

An MCPS spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

The website does include information on MCPS school construction projects, which make up $3.41 billion of the county’s overall $13.8 billion six-year capital budget.