Following the Money in NJ Cities

by NJPIRG Student Chapters | 09/14/2016

“Following the Money in New Jersey Cities" examines how transparent 15 of the state’s other most populous municipalities make their spending data. This survey grades all 15 cities’ spending transparency from “A” to “F”.

All of New Jersey’s cities should be transparent about their expenditures, all the way from how much the city spends on travel for its employees to how many economic development subsidies it hands out. Transparency promotes fiscal responsibility, bolsters public confidence in government, and checks corruption. It’s especially important when so many of our cities are facing difficult budget choices as they do today.

We should be able to scrutinize our government’s spending the way we can examine our own checkbook. We can see what payments are going out, who they were paid to, and what they’re for. This same “checkbook-level” transparency is an emerging standard for online disclosure of state finances, in ways that are increasingly accessible and comprehensive, and city finances should be meeting that same standard.

Unfortunately, the report finds that all 15 New Jersey cities that were analyzed fail to meet “Transparency 2.0” standards—earning dismal grades across the board, Jersey City received the highest grade: a D+, and the grades included a string of Fs. Though the state of New Jersey itself earned a “B” under similar criteria, the state’s cities are lagging far behind.

In 2016, transparency means online. Data that isn’t accessible, searchable, and downloadable online isn’t truly transparent to the everyday citizen. That’s why this report focuses on how successful cities are at creating one-stop, user-friendly transparency portals online that provide checkbook-level spending information. None of the cities had an online checkbook of the sort that has become the national standard, though many other cities across the country—from tiny Wellston, Ohio, to New York City have adopted such portals. Only 10 New Jersey municipalities have made their “User Friendly Budget Documents” available online as mandated by state law, though all cities have made budgets available online in less accessible forms.

Over the next year, all New Jersey cities should prioritize online transparency to empower and engage citizen involvement. With the help of the state, which already has ready-made online infrastructure for a transparency portal, all residents of New Jersey should be able to see how, exactly, their tax dollars are being spent.

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tax and budget good government transparency