Open Palm Bay UPDATED

May 20, 2011

I’m very happy to present a guest post from Mr. Lee Feldman, the City Manager of Palm Bay, Florida. City Manager Feldman is a superstar of muniland transparency. Read how he and his team developed a fully open financial-reporting system to engage and empower the citizens of Palm Bay.  [UPDATE: On Tuesday, it was announced that Mr. Feldman would soon leave his position in Palm Bay to take over as city manager of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.] – Financial Transparency at the Public’s Fingertips

The City of Palm Bay, Florida, felt our neighbors deserved to have a simple way to see how their tax dollars were spent. In December 2009 the City created Open Palm Bay, an online interactive database that allows them to view and search the City’s financial information at any time.

The intuitive database enables anyone to follow their money right down to the penny. Palm Bay believes that this easy-to-use website is the first of its kind in Florida, setting the benchmark for financial transparency in local government.

The City proactively decided to create this website in anticipation of the passage of a proposed bill in the Florida state legislature. Although the legislation was ultimately not approved, Palm Bay officials thought the concept was a worthy initiative to pursue and they continued forward with the effort.

The information within the database is presented in three separate areas: expenditures, salaries and revenue. The site also provides easy access to the City’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR). All financial information is updated quarterly. Visitors to the site are given several different options to sort or filter the available information for online viewing, or they may export reports to several different file formats for offline viewing. The site includes a glossary of terms used in the financial data and a Frequently Asked Questions section.

The development team was composed primarily of employees from the city’s finance and information technology departments. Other city departments were consulted throughout the process. The project was championed by the City Manager and facilitated by the Deputy City Manager. The team’s overall goal was to create a sense of public trust and ownership for the community through increased financial transparency.

The project was initiated with several preconditions. All financial information would be made available online as long as it was allowed by law. Issues with public-safety officers, property alarms and HIPAA concerns were addressed while still providing enough information to show plainly where each dollar was used.

Open Palm Bay was created using existing software and resources. By pooling the expertise of the City’s professionals development of the database took approximately six months, with full implementation in an additional three months.

Every financial transaction can now be viewed using this system, from the $15,000 spent on park improvements to itemized lists of money spent for office supplies to individual employee salaries that can be searched by name or job title. The site also lists sources of revenues such as fees, fines, taxes and confiscated funds.

With a dedicated team committed to providing financial transparency to its citizens, any municipality can replicate this concept. Support for a project such as this must come from city management and leadership. Key decision-makers must buy in to the concept and its benefits. To accomplish this type of undertaking, the team must be flexible, creative and willing to think outside the box to find solutions. This database is not a one-time display of financial transactions — it will continue to change along with the annual city budget.

Involving our neighbors in the process of government is vital to the growth of any community. If our neighbors understand the process and why decisions are made, they are more likely and willing to become active participants, and in some cases, even advocates. With the development of this initiative, Palm Bay is creating a well-informed community, an even more accountable local government and an increased trust among both.

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