VICTORY for Transparency: Lafayette Opens the Books

   

On January 26th, the Guillory administration made a surprise announcement, launching the “online budget interactive tool.” The ever-expedient press quickly printed the official notice, but none of them mentioned that it was Citizens for a New Louisiana that’s been pressing LCG to participate in the Louisiana Checkbook for years. In fact, it was nearly three years ago, on March 6th, 2018, that City Councilwoman Liz Webb-Hebert introduced resolution R-016-2018 that got all of this started. It’s been a long time since then, but she stuck with it.

The Louisiana Checkbook was originally brought up by Louisiana State Treasurer John Schroder as a means to improve transparency (and trust) in state government. In February of 2018, Treasurer Schroder brought the originators of the concept to a LABI annual meeting. The project that was demonstrated at that meeting was the Ohio Checkbook.

The concept became so popular that Justin Centanni registered the domain name, LafayetteCheckbook.com, and brought it forward quickly at a School Board meeting. In fact, on the same day as the LABI annual meeting, February 8, 2018, the Louisiana Checkbook announced the Lafayette School System’s participation. Visiting LafayetteCheckbook.com takes you to the School System’s version of the concept.

I was a beta tester for the new LCG website

It was December 22, 2019, when Liz Hebert reached out to ask for me to test the new site. I had some initial challenges with it, and reported back to her on January 13th with some critique.

I’m not sure if it’s using live data, so forgive me if I’m missing the point of review. Overall, I like the ability to see the data and drill down. However, I compared the printed budget against what I’m seeing in the data and nothing I checked matches. I’m also not a fan of dead ends with large balances. Below, I’ll explain two that I found: one for $10 million and another for $25.5 million.
What I think would be better is if the expense side fund would drill down one step further to a list of actual expenses. That list should allow the user to click on an item to view the actual invoice that was paid.
+++++++++++++++++++++++
The 2020-21 budget year isn’t complete, so I went back to the 2019-20 Budget vs. Actual Expenses – Graph.
Starting out at office of finance & management, then to FM-General Accounts, I arrived at the line number below. It wouldn’t drill down any further than this $10 million budget / expense, but it was a large amount of money so I decided to look deeper.
74000-278 – INT APP-POL & FIRE RESILNCY FD $10 MILLION
I opened the budget book from 2020-21 just to see if there was more detail. However, there’s no record of account number 1010170-74000-278. I also tried 2019-20, and even decided to check all the way back to 2011-2012 (the first year of the new budget code numbers). Nothing.
Backing out a level to the fund 1010170 “General Accounts” has a total adopted budget of $81,907,308 in the paper budget. However, online says the adopted amount for that fund is only $31.9 million.
++++++++++++++++++++++
From here, I I tried the second item on the list: 3580170 – FM-GENERAL ACCOUNTS $28 million. I opened the 2019-20 printed budget and the fund total for that account number is only $3,452,725 (not $28 million).
From there, I checked account number 78560-0, which reflects $25.5 million online. However, that account number does not appear in the printed budget at all.
++++++++++++++++++++++
Let me know if I’m doing this wrong. I’ll wait to hear back from you before continuing.

Lorri Toups responds

I didn’t get CFO Lorri Toups response until after the press release announcing the new transparency solution was live online. However, she said they’re working on drilling down to an actual invoice. She also noted that the missing account numbers I found were created by the council after the budget book was printed.

This is live real data and it changes daily.  The data comes directly from our budget system which is cash based and from our accounting system which follows government reporting standards and is not cash based. This is the same information we will use to generate reports, the budget book, and our financial statements.

The main feature of the new website that I love and hate at the same time is it’s going to be live data. That means if the council passes a budget adjustment ordinance tomorrow, it could show up on the website as early as the next day. That’s great, but the website is incredibly ambiguous. The reason I didn’t know what the $10 million and $25 million were for was because there’s no explanation. It just has an account number and an amount. There’s no reference to an ordinance or any other details.

It’s a work in progress

Hopefully, LCG’s new transparency website will improve over time. Adding things like actual invoices will be a huge improvement. Also, associating (and linking) the revenue and expenses to ordinances or the original budget hearing would be incredibly helpful.

You should absolutely send Liz Hebert an email, thanking her for staying on top of this very important transparency initiative.

If you’d like to check out the website for yourself, you can do so at this link: https://lcg.openbook.questica.com

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