Inquirer Editorial: Showing the city how to show us the money

MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Posted: February 07, 2013

Brett Mandel's second run for city controller has already produced something far more useful than the lawn signs and bumper stickers that are the chief legacy of most campaigns.

Mandel recently unveiled his "Bulldog Budget," a spiffy online tool that presents detailed information about the $3.5 billion the city spent during the last fiscal year. Developed by Mandel and his friend Ben Garvey using city data acquired under the Right-to-Know Law, the application (budget.brettmandel.com) represents the budget in nested, color-coded rectangles sized according to their share of spending. Users can click on successive classes of expenditures to drill all the way down to the individual line items.

The budget is also searchable - which makes it easy to find out, for example, that the library spent $12,000 on pest control last year, while City Council spent $12 million on salaries. Or that the city spent $2,135.85 on pizza but only $280 on hoagies. And that $400,000 went to lobbying, while $4 million went to paying off sidewalk slip-and-fall plaintiffs.

The budget is accompanied by a disclaimer to the effect that its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. And, understandably but unfortunately, Mandel has removed individual salaries from the site out of caution. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that a pair of motivated citizens may have contributed far more to the public's understanding of Philadelphia's budget than the city ever has - even with ready access to its own data and all the extensive resources that the site documents.

Both Mandel's once and future rival, City Controller Alan Butkovitz, and an administration official have carped at the effort's accuracy, utility, and motives. Such responses, coming from officials who should be providing just this kind of service to the public, ring hollow.

Why haven't city officials already provided such accessible budget information? Because, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, they don't care. Transparency, especially with respect to spending, has never been a City Hall priority. The public is generally expected to trust that every dollar the government spends is strictly necessary - and, of course, that every tax hike it imposes must be similarly predestined.

Comprehensive, comprehensible public information is antithetical to such expectations. But it is increasingly the public's expectation. In the long run, the only way city officials will beat the likes of Mandel is by joining him and doing the same thing better. Given all the money they're spending, that goal should be well within reach.

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