Outstanding Financial Transparency Websites
- December 2012 - Carrizo Springs Consolidated Independent School District
- November 2012 - West Texas School District Does Its Veribest to be Transparent
- October 2012 - Understandable Budgets are Big Part of Potter County‘s Transparency Success
- September 2012 - Richwood Sets Gold Standard for Small Cities
- August 2012 - Woden ISD is a Three-peat Gold Performer
- July 2012 - Austin ISD is the Capital of School Finance Transparency
- June 2012 - Abilene Opens Its Books for Everyone to See
- May 2012 - San Elizario ISD: A History of Firsts in West Texas
- April 2012 - Gold-Standard Lubbock County Strives to Make Data Easily Understood
- March 2012 - Tomball ISD Earns Transparency Gold Standard for Third Time
- February 2012 - City of Corpus Christi
- January 2012 - Pilot Point ISD
- December 2011 - Hartley County
- November 2011 - Harris County Department of Education (HCDE)
- August 2011 - The City of Sealy
- June 2011 - Lakeway MUD is Clearly Transparent
- May 2011 - City of Burleson
- April 2011 - El Paso County
Carrizo Springs Consolidated Independent School District – December 2012
2010 GOLD Award (13 of 15 Points)
2012 GOLD Award (20 of 20 Points)
Online financial transparency is a viable option for school districts no matter how large or small their student body and location in Texas. Carrizo Springs Consolidated Independent School District has earned a 2012 Leadership Circle Gold Designation. The district serves about 2,377 students in Dimmit County, and serves an area along the Rio Grande River between Eagle Pass and Laredo.
By selecting the Departments tab and clicking on the Business Office link on the Carrizo Springs CISD home page, users can easily access important financial information, find a convenient list of district staff contacts and find information for filing public information requests. Selecting the over the Business Office Reports link on the main menu reveals a detailed list of the district’s financial reports.
Carrizo Springs website has four years of budgets and comprehensive annual financial reports, and five years of check registers. But district leaders were not satisfied to simply meet the minimum requirements to earn a Gold Award. Demonstrating a true commitment to transparency, the site also includes a number of additional financial documents including facility studies, quarterly investment reports, tax collection reports, four years of monthly financial reports and charts, three Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas reports issued by the Texas Education Agency, and two years of quarterly purchasing reports.
The quarterly purchasing report is distinctive because it details purchases that exceed $50,000 during a quarter. This provides an additional level of transparency that allows visitors to the site to identify large cumulative purchases made by the district that may not be easily identified by reviewing only the check registers.
The Business Office Web page also contains other useful information such as public hearing notices, the district’s Fiscal Manual, the pay calendar and the Campus Activity Fund Guide. In addition, the site provides links to other local government websites, including Dimmit County and the city of Carrizo Springs.
The Carrizo Springs CISD demonstrates a true commitment to financial transparency. Despite its relatively small size, it is one of the financial transparency giants among Texas school districts, for the wealth of useful online data it provides to its taxpayers.
West Texas School District Does Its Veribest to be Transparent – November 2012
2012 GOLD Award (20 of 20 Points)
Veribest Independent School District in Tom Green County has been designated a Gold level Leadership Circle district in 2012 for the third consecutive year. The district scored a perfect 20 out of 20 possible points on the rating criteria.
Located east of San Angelo, Veribest is a small school district with a 2010-11 enrollment of 274 students. Despite the challenge of having a small staff to perform all the tasks required of a Texas school district, Veribest has developed a comprehensive and user-friendly financial transparency section on its website with some distinctive features.
The financial transparency homepage provides a summary explaining financial transparency and why it is important to the taxpayer for providing a window to the school district’s financial workings. Veribest ISD’s transparency portal also provides links to three helpful government web pages maintained by the Comptroller’s office:
- Taxpayer’s Transparency Tips contains tips for taxpayers;
- Transparency Steps and Tools has information for local governments;
- Texas Ahead provides economic development tools and information; and
- Public Information Act has information access guidelines for taxpayers and government entities.
Including links to these resources demonstrates Veribest ISD’s commitment to being financially transparent to its taxpayers.
Not only does Veribest ISD’s website include helpful resources, but it also highlights the Leadership Circle award definition of key financial documents and provides links to both current and past documents. The annual adopted budget is available in raw budget format that allows taxpayers to download general fund, food service and debt service data and analyze it or create charts and graphs. It also has a “bottom line” which compares total revenues and total expenditures, and clearly shows that the current 2012-13 budget is balanced.
Perhaps unique to Veribest ISD – which proudly proclaims the district’s exchange student links with other countries – is a language translation tool powered by Google Translate, giving website users an option for translating Veribest’s pages into a different language at the click of a button. This element combined with a online phone and email contact information for each administrator and school board members makes Veribest ISD one of the most transparent local government entities in Texas.
View Veribest’s Leadership Circle score sheet for 2012.
Understandable Budgets are Big Part of Potter County‘s Transparency Success – October 2012
2012 GOLD Award (20 of 20 Points)
Although Gold standard Potter County has posted its annual Budget and Annual Financial Report for several years, the county applied in 2012 for the first time to the Comptroller’s Leadership Circle. The maximum score of 20 points ranks Potter among the most financially transparent local governments in Texas.
The 2011-12 Budget book includes a combined, all funds budget, showing totals of all estimated revenues and all expenditures as well as a planned deficit of $6,424,529. This combined budget is illustrated using colorful pie charts that explain revenues and expenditures in several formats – source, function or department, and fund. These charts can help taxpayers who might understandably be stunned by spreadsheets, more easily get an overview of where the county’s money is coming from, where it is going, and the overall state of the county’s funds.
Potter County’s illustrated approach to budget presentation is a good example for other local governments – including many who already embrace financial transparency – for making information not just available, but easy-to-understand, too. Potter’s all funds budget shows the big picture of county finances, often a difficult concept for taxpayers trying to reconcile the separate funds that are usually documented in different sections of budgets and financial reports.
The county website also hosts monthly financial reports so taxpayers can compare actual revenues and expenditures to the budgeted revenues and expenditures. Potter County goes even further to make financial data useable to the public by posting an additional copy of the budget in Extensible Markup Language (XML) format. This machine-readable document makes it easier for the media, public or private researchers, or any interested taxpayer to download and analyze the budget data to identify changes in revenues, explore possible ways to reduce spending, or compare different scenarios for allocating resources.
Besides taking the time to make financial data more accessible, Potter County officials’ open government ethos extends to making themselves accessible by posting phone numbers and email addresses for the county judge and commissioners, as well as a complete phone directory for all elected county officials. Their county website also contains precinct and voting district maps to guide users to their specific elected representatives.
Richwood Sets Gold Standard for Small Cities – September 2012
2010 GOLD Award (14 of 15 Points)
2011 GOLD Award (20 of 20 Points)
2012 GOLD Award (20 of 20 Points)
Richwood’s strong commitment to financial transparency is an excellent example for small communities. The small city of 3,500 residents in Brazoria County has proved three years in a row it is certainly capable of posting key financial documents online. In 2012, Richwood earned the Comptroller’s Leadership Circle gold designation for the third time – and has scored a perfect 20 points the past two years.
Richwood’s dedicated financial transparency page is easily accessible in the Government tab on the city’s home page. The commitment to financial transparency is stated for anyone who wants to see the city’s financial data online: “[The] City of Richwood remains committed to achieving the goal of financial transparency so that all taxpayers can get a clear picture of where their money is going.”
To achieve the city’s fiscal transparency goal, the financial transparency page includes four years of Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports, four years of budgets (downloadable both as PDF and raw data files), and five years of check registers, and Richwood tax rates. The check register lists expenditures in different ways – an accounts payable format, a registry with more detailed information, and a payroll summary.
From the financial transparency page a citizen can easily find a link to the public information request and view a breakdown of the sales tax collected by the city.
Residents can also access an online Citizen Concern form on the city website to communicate with city officials so situations can be effectively addressed in a timely manner.
The city of Richwood also has a city-to-resident notification system. With this service, city leaders can send personalized voice messages to residents and businesses within minutes providing specific information about time-sensitive or common-interest issues such as emergencies and local community matters.
Woden ISD is a Three-peat Gold Performer – August 2012
2010 GOLD Award (14 of 15 Points)
2011 GOLD Award (18 of 20 Points)
2012 GOLD Award (19 of 20 Points)
Founded around 1917, Woden ISD is one of Texas’ smaller school districts with a student body of only 814 in 2011. The district typifies the spirit of doing more with less. Woden ISD has openly embraced financial transparency as evidenced by its participation in the Comptroller’s Leadership Circle program for the past three years.
Woden ISD’s home page has an eye-catching icon in the shape of a school building used as a bank that links to the financial documents and a statement of the district’s commitment to financial transparency. With one click, the user is taken to an index of the school district’s financial reports, utility consumption reports and audits, and a link to years of budget and tax documents. Woden’s commitment to financial transparency is matched by its commitment to financial accountability. The district also publishes its Texas Education Agency Financial Integrity Ratings System for Texas (FIRST) reports.
By utilizing an outline format to detail its financial information, taxpayers can easily navigate the website to evaluate major financial documents and be well informed. The financial page not only provides financial data, but also makes it easy for members of the public to ask questions and submit input. This helps taxpayers become better informed and provides an avenue for anyone to submit valuable suggestions that can help school district officials and leaders plan for the future.
Austin ISD is the Capital of School Finance Transparency – July 2012
Austin Independent School District
Founded in 1881, the Austin Independent School District (AISD) is currently the fifth largest district in Texas, educating approximately 86,000 students at 124 schools. AISD has scored the maximum 20 points in 2012 and is awarded the Gold level in the Comptroller’s Leadership Circle for the third time, one of just a handful of Texas governmental entities that has achieved this level of financial transparency.
AISD has made it easy for the public to find a wealth of online financial data thanks to the prominent Budget/Financial Transparency link on its home page. The data is presented in a way that makes it understandable to taxpayers, by employing simple yet direct language that clearly describes the district’s financial state.
Thoroughness and attention to detail goes well beyond the Leadership Circle award criteria. The AISD financial transparency page encourages community members to submit budget questions online, providing valuable input for AISD leaders to consider when establishing policies and working to meet its students educational needs.
AISD taxpayers also can view how the school tax portion of their annual property taxes funds district services by clicking on the How does Austin Spend my property tax dollars? link and entering their appraised values. A pie chart and table explain what percentage of the district’s budget in the current fiscal year is allocated to a particular category; for example, in 2011-12, 53.35 percent is allocated to instruction, while 16.12 percent is sent to the state as recapture dollars to be reallocated to less property-wealthy districts.
In The Apple at Work section, AISD also does a thorough job of keeping citizens informed on the status of its 2004 and 2008 bond programs used to fund $863 million in infrastructure improvements. Included is the history of each bond election, details on the funds obtained, the scope of the work involved, scheduled payments, and the projected impact on future budgets and homeowner’s property tax rates to retire these bonds. There are also annual reports on the current status of each bond, including the percentage of funds expended, the amount of the work completed, and what work remains to complete each bond program on time and within budget.
Abilene Opens Its Books for Everyone to See – June 2012
2010 SILVER Award (9 of 15 Points)
2011 GOLD Award (17 of 20 Points)
2012 GOLD Award (17 of 20 Points)
The city of Abilene receives the Texas Comptroller’s Leadership Circle Gold designation for the second consecutive year, and demonstrates its continuing commitment to financial transparency. Abilene has been posting annual budgets and financial reports to its website since 2008 and was among the first cities to apply to the Leadership Circle earning the silver designation in 2010.
Abilene’s website epitomizes the concept of “open government.” Linked directly from the home page, the Abilene411 section of the website invites citizens to ask questions of city staff, request services, report problems or complaints, volunteer for boards and commissions, and sign up for newsletters or emergency notifications. The home page has links to guide users — citizens, businesses and visitors — to current information on city government, services, city departments, economic development policies, and an “I want to” link to answers for commonly asked questions.
The Financial Transparency link on the Finance Department’s section of the website connects taxpayers to the three key financial documents — annual budgets, annual financial reports, and check/expense registers — as well as guidance for filing public information requests and a one-page outline of tax rates assessed by the city of Abilene. The website also has information about the city’s purchasing and contracting operations, fraud, waste and abuse policies, and municipal court details.
One way that the city of Abilene is connecting with the community is through its Youth Advisory Council (YAC), which is an avenue for the city’s youth to be involved in the municipal governing process and provides a way for young people to learn more about municipal government and become leaders among their peers. The YAC consists of 25 middle and high school-aged board members who are selected by their counselors and principals and confirmed by the city council. This program provides a valuable youth perspective to the city council and other city officials, while preparing the younger members of the community for their future roles as good citizens and civic leaders. YAC minutes and agendas and information from other city board and commission meetings are posted on the Abilene website, too.
San Elizario ISD: A History of Firsts in West Texas – May 2012
2011 GOLD Award (19 of 20 Points)
2012 GOLD Award (19 of 20 Points)
San Elizario ISD was founded in 1870 with the first public school in El Paso County, where children attended classes in a small adobe building. Now a mid-sized district of about 4,000 students, it has become a leader in financial transparency among school districts its size. For two straight years, the San Elizario ISD has earned the Gold designation in the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Leadership Circle, recognizing excellence in financial transparency.
San Elizario has an easy-to-find transparency page, with a one-stop direct link to key data, such as four years of budget and audit documents and five years of check registers. Posting all this information online increases San Elizario ISD’s financially transparency and promotes accountability by providing information to local taxpayers about what their school district is doing.
San Elizario has taken steps to disclose information rapidly in ways that the public can readily find and use. The website also has lots of other helpful information that is simple to find and convenient, including contact information for its elected officials, a downloadable form for making public information requests, and current tax rates. Taxpayers can also view a seven-page chart and graph color presentation that synthesizes complex financial information in an understandable and relevant manner, such as revenues, expenditures, expenditures per pupil, and recent history of several key funds.
San Elizario has taken other steps to provide information and engage with the public. It offers meeting minutes, agendas, and information packets for school board meetings, dating back to 2007. It also has its district policies posted online, broken-out by section, and by alphabetical order. And, of course, members of the public also can contact the administration or other key personnel and faculty directly from the website, by email, with questions about these issues or other issues related to their children, or at their phone numbers listed online.
Public engagement enhances the school district’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge.
Gold-Standard Lubbock County Strives to Make Data Easily Understood – April 2012
2010 GOLD Award (14 of 15 Points)
2011 GOLD Award (19 of 20 Points)
2012 GOLD Award (18 of 20 Points)
Lubbock County was an early proponent of financial transparency in Texas, first posting two key documents – its budget and the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report – in 2005. The county has continued to add financial data and increase its level of transparency, so it isn’t surprising that Lubbock County was among the first local governments to qualify for the Comptroller’s Leadership Circle and in 2012 earned the Gold designation for the third consecutive year.
Lubbock County’s website is user-friendly and taxpayers can use keywords to search a wide range of data. Financial documents are easy to find from the “Financial Transparency” link on county’s home page, which takes users to a single page containing links to annual budgets, financial reports and check/expense registers. Other links include the monthly financial report with an up-to-date status of county revenues, expenditures and investment reports, and information on local tax rates.
Lubbock County’s unique feature is how it presents financial information: Data is provided in tables, as well as other visual aids, to more easily convey information. There are more than 100 pie, bar and line charts in the fiscal 2011-12 budget document. The section on local tax rates also includes color charts showing the current property tax rates and rate history for several previous years, the tax revenue raised, the current taxes levy on an average-priced home (in a clever house-shaped chart) and identifies the percentages levied by Lubbock County, the city of Lubbock and the Lubbock Independent School District. A pie chart shows how Lubbock County allocates these revenues to the various funds and departments.
Any citizen should be able to go to this website and find answers to most questions about county finances. Users are invited to email questions or offer feedback direct from any page on the website.
Tomball ISD Earns Transparency Gold Standard for Third Time – March 2012
2010 GOLD Award (12 of 15 Points)
2011 GOLD Award (19 of 20 Points)
2012 GOLD Award (20 of 20 Points)
Fast-growing Tomball Independent School District is located northeast of Houston in Harris County and serves about 11,000 students. The district’s positive approach to financial transparency is obvious through its third consecutive gold designation in the Texas Comptroller’s Leadership Circle.
The Financial Transparency link on the Tomball ISD homepage connects users to the Finance Department page with a single click. At the top of the easy-to-navigate page, the Finance Department outlines its basic objective: to record and report useful and timely accounting information regarding the District’s financial transactions in order to provide relevant information useful for evaluating managerial and organizational performance.
The site has five years of budgets, four years of comprehensive annual financial reports, and three years of check registers. It also contains useful financial information that goes beyond what is needed to earn the Leadership Circle designation, including four years of investment reports, a year’s worth of monthly reports and Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas (FIRST) reports for 2010 and 2011.
Tomball ISD’s versatile check register allows users to search three years of payments by payment period, payment amounts and payees. For example, if you enter $85,000 as the amount paid, the register would retrieve a list of all payees at that amount, with dates paid, and description of the purchase. Check register updates are posted to the site monthly and include payments from all district funds such as general fund, debt service fund, as well as capital project, food services, grant, internal service, and miscellaneous enterprise funds.
The Finance Department Web page also contains links to other related and useful information, including upcoming public hearings on financial matters, the tax rate and the board of trustees. The page also clearly provides email contacts for Tomball ISD’s chief financial officer and director of finance as the points of contact for more information or to send an open records request.
User feedback is also welcomed and can be easily provided through a survey linked from the Finance Department page that allows a user to comment on the page and suggest improvements.
City of Corpus Christi – February 2012
2010 GOLD Award (14 of 15 Points) 2011 GOLD Award (17 of 20 Points)
For two years in a row the City of Corpus Christi has received Gold status in the Comptroller's Transparency Leadership Circle Award program. The website's home page is simple and well-organized so that visitors can quickly find the information they are seeking. Key features include a “Current Information” link to important and newly updated pages on the site and a “Customer Service” link with information on paying utility bills or resolving traffic tickets. “Quick Access Portals” swiftly take users to separate pages specifically designed for residents, visitors and business, to name a few. A relatively unique portal provides access to various interactive GIS maps of the city. But the site's exceptionality doesn't stop there. The “CCMobile” link takes users to a downloadable smart phone application or “app” which allows residents to report issues such as potholes, stray animals and illegal dumping and track their status.
Where Corpus Christi's website truly shines, however, is in the ease and simplicity of access to current and historic financial data. Under “Quick Access Portals” there is a link to “Financial and Budget Data” which carries users to a single page with links to all of the city's financial data, just one click from the home page.
Like many of the Comptroller's Gold Leadership Circle award winners, the City of Corpus Christi provides a wealth of financial information to its citizens on its interactive website. However, the site excels in providing other useful community information in an organized and intuitive manner.
Organized Website Leads Pilot Point ISD to Leadership Circle Gold – January 2012
2010 GOLD Award (13 of 15 Points) 2011 GOLD Award (17 of 20 Points)
Pilot Point Independent School District provides a wealth of financial information to its citizens and manages to keep it organized and easy to access.
The Business and Finance section is an excellent example of financial transparency, linking all key financial documents on a single page. Several years’ budgets, annual reports and check registers can be downloaded as PDFs, as well as audits and other financial documents.
Pilot Point ISD has earned the gold Comptroller’s Leadership Circle designation two years in a row, and its website’s organization will make it very easy to qualify for the gold standard again this year.
Not only does Pilot Point ISD keep four years worth of financial data on one page in an easy-to-find format, the Financial Facts 2011-2012 section provides visitors a quick overview of the school district’s budget, tax rate and property tax exemptions. For easy reference, check registers are posted monthly for the current year. Previous years’ annual check registers are linked in separate documents. The payroll register, updated each month, summarizes monthly pay periods since fiscal 2007-08 in a single document.
In addition to Pilot Point’s commitment to financial transparency, its website has lots of useful detail. Contact information is posted on the home page, and the Administration page helpfully provides photos, phone and fax numbers, and email addresses for all Pilot Point’s administrative staff.
When it comes to transparency, Pilot Point ISD succeeds by providing a simple, easy-to-use website and a wealth of valuable information that is well-organized and readily available to visitors.
Spotlight Story on Hartley County – December 2011
2010 GOLD Award (15 of 15 Points) 2011 GOLD Award (17 of 20 Points)
Hartley County, a Texas Panhandle county of 6,062 residents, demonstrates how even small counties can achieve a high level of financial transparency. Hartley County applied for a Leadership Circle award in April 2010, and re-applied in March 2011, becoming one of the first counties to earn a gold designation for two successive years.
Hartley County is a great example of how using available resources, in simple but creative ways, can help avoid complex, elaborate and expensive solutions to everyday problems and improve local government.
County officials take advantage of free services available from the County Information Resources Agency (CIRA), part of the Texas Association of Counties, to achieve these goals. CIRA sets up and hosts county websites and provides content management system training to county staff so they can post documents on those sites.
Hartley County Treasurer Dinkie Parman attended CIRA’s training to learn how to post documents and keep the site up-to-date. “I didn’t know anything about updating Web pages, but the training was exceptional, even fun,” she says. “I was surprised at how much I learned in one day, and how easy it is to manage the website.”
Except for her travel expenses to attend CIRA training, Parman said Hartley County spent very little in either taxpayer dollars or staff time to set up the website and implement the financial transparency practices needed to earn the Leadership Circle awards.
The county uses a simple and straightforward approach for its website and transparency page. For example, the home page includes a link “Click Here for Hartley County’s Financial Transparency Web Page,” to make it easy for users to find and access all key financial information.
CIRA’s standard home page format for county websites includes other links, such as key offices and public notices, to make the whole site user-friendly. The Budget and Annual Financial Reports are posted in PDF format, and the Monthly Treasurers Reports and Check Registers in HTML.
To meet the new 2011 criteria and earn a second gold level award, Hartley County only had to add the local property tax rates, and an additional year of budgets and annual financial reports. Another 2011 requirement, Electronic Fund Transfers such as summaries of payroll and benefits, already were included in the Check/Expense Register.
Hartley County also found a cost-effective way to add technology staff to the Treasurer’s office. Parman hired Channing High School senior Bailey Hooten to work four hours per week as a technical assistant.
“She, like a lot of today’s youth, is very quick,” Parman says. “It’s amazing how fast she picked up on the new technology. She has great technical skills and handles a lot of other office tasks besides being our Web Page Administrator.”
Parman sees students like Hooten as a previously untapped source of technically savvy workers, and plans to continue using part-time students after she graduates next spring. The county benefits from the student’s energy, productivity and knowledge, at reasonable costs. And a local student gains real world paid work experience and a head start on a technical career field.
Outstanding Financial Transparency Website – November 2011
Harris County Department of Education (HCDE)
2010 GOLD Award (13 of 15 Points) 2011 GOLD Award (20 of 20 Points)
The Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) is a unique vestige of the original Texas system of county departments of education. HCDE was founded in 1889 with a five-member board and the mission of providing free public education in Harris County. The board set rules and duties, hired and paid teachers, purchased library books and contracted for buildings and furnishings — mostly one-room schools — to serve about 900 students.
In the 20th century, as Texas developed independent school districts (ISD) and the federal government’s role in public education expanded, HCDE evolved to provide efficient services that supported ISDs in Harris County. It now provides programs in professional development, instructional support, vocational training, and special needs therapy programs, purchasing cooperatives, facilities construction and maintenance, and contract management. HCDE’s operating revenue is generated mainly from customer service fees and federal grants — just 21 percent of fiscal 2011 revenues come from a 1 percent property tax.
When Comptroller Susan Combs announced the Leadership Circle Award program in December 2009, HCDE was one of the first entities to apply, earning 13 of 15 points in the award criteria to earn a gold designation for financial transparency. HCDE leaders were determined to get the highest possible score when the time came for the district to reapply in 2011, so they requested a special briefing on financial transparency from the Comptroller’s regional representative, Michelle Luera. HCDE upgraded its website to again earn the gold award and become the first organization to earn the maximum 20 points available under the new 2011 criteria.
HCDE’s website includes a home page link “HCDE Financial Transparency” that takes users to key documents in a range of categories, including Public Information, Budget, Tax Rates, Annual Reports, Economic and Statistical Data, Continuing Disclosure Data, and Monthly (Interim) Reports. This makes it easy for a user to find almost any kind of document or information desired. User-friendliness is apparent at every level. For example, the labels for the Budget and Annual Reports links are careful to note that the organization’s fiscal year is Sept. 1 to Aug. 31, a minor but essential detail. The Annual Budget is also available in a machine-readable format, which allows more sophisticated users, including media and research organizations, to download and analyze the raw data.
Thoroughness and attention to detail goes well beyond the Leadership Circle award criteria. For example, the public information page contains not just the usual request form, but also a copy of the Texas Public Information Act — in both English and Spanish — and a detailed list of charges for staff time, programming and other services. In addition to the three essential documents recommended by the Comptroller, HCDE also posts monthly highlights reports, financial statements and investment reports, as well as 10 years of financial archives with related economic and demographic data about the Harris County service area. The result is a wealth of current and historical financial data readily available to anyone who has Internet access.
Outstanding Financial Transparency Website – August 2011
The City of Sealy
Greater Transparency Improved Sealy to Gold
Sealy has scored gold again in 2011. Officials at the city of 6,019 residents located 50 miles west of Houston were among the first to apply for the Texas Comptroller’s Leadership Circle and initially Sealy scored 9 of 15 points to earn a silver award in January 2010. Not satisfied, they added a check register and other features and reapplied in June 2010, successfully raising Sealy’s score to the maximum 15 points qualifying for the gold level. Officials continued to improve the city website by combining all key financial data on one transparency Web page earning a score 18 of 20 points under the Leadership’s updated criteria for 2011.
Sealy labeled the new transparency page the “Financial Dashboard” because it provides a quick, thorough review of all aspects of the city’s finances. In addition to the Budget, Annual Financial Report, and Check/Expense Register, the dashboard also provides an overview of all local taxes, including the current rates for property, sales and use, and hotel occupancy taxes. Descriptive text and color charts are used to explain each tax’s revenue history. The city also explains how the Maintenance and Operations portion of the property tax contributes to the city’s general operating costs, and the Interests and Sinking fund portion is applied to city debts.
Sealy’s experience and improvement over the first two years of the Leadership Circle is an example of how the program encourages even successful local governments to continue enhancing fiscal transparency. The application criteria in the Leadership Circle’s second year are more rigorous than in the first year requiring most local governments that earned an award in 2010 to improve their transparency efforts to qualify for the same award in 2011. Secondly, these criteria were not set up to be prescriptive or to measure an absolute standard of transparency. Meeting all the available criteria does not equate to being “perfect;” there is always more a local government can do.
The scoring criteria are focused on essentials of transparency: posting the key financial documents, making it easy for taxpayers to contact local officials and request public records, and providing user-friendly features that make it easier for taxpayers to find and understand financial data. The criteria were selected so that most would be attainable by all local governments, so that smaller and less technically sophisticated entities would be eligible for all award levels, including the Gold.
Because the award criteria became more stringent in 2011, Sealy had to demonstrate continued improvement to receive the same award level. In fact, Sealy’s website includes several other features that promote transparency, but are not included in the award criteria. For example, it not only lists the City Secretary as the contact for public information requests, but also outlines that official’s role in maintaining city records, the kind of records available, a list of standard charges, and provides several methods to submit a request. Sealy’s website also contains the city’s and economic development corporation’s investment policies, electronic payment facilities for utility bills, and interactive features to help citizens access city services and provide input on city issues. Sealy’s dedication to open government is evident in the efforts it has have taken to maintain and improve the transparency of the city website.
Outstanding Financial Transparency Website – June 2011
Lakeway MUD is Clearly Transparent
Lakeway Municipal Utility District (MUD) is the first MUD to earn the Texas Comptroller’s Leadership Circle Gold award for financial transparency in 2011, and doing so became the first utility district to receive the Gold award in consecutive years.
The Lakeway MUD was established in 1972 to provide water, wastewater and water recycling services to the majority of homes and businesses in the City of Lakeway and a portion of Village of the Hills. The district’s operating expenses are $6.3 million annually, with more than two-thirds funded by water fees paid by customers and the remainder by property taxes for wastewater services.
The Lakeway MUD’s home page highlights financial transparency by displaying the Comptroller’s Leadership Circle gold logo and a letter from board president Karl Ansbach endorsing transparency. Customers and anyone else who is interested can find extensive information on the Lakeway MUD’s website, including:
- the district’s purpose, leadership and organizational structure;
- meeting notices, agendas and minutes;
- complete financial information, including annual budgets, audit reports, check/expense registers and monthly balance sheets, and details of current projects and construction;
- rates and online tools for requesting new service, account changes and paying bills;
- Texas Water Code regulations, ordinances, permits and governing policies;
- newsletters and press releases keeping customers up-to-date on the latest drought conditions, water conservation measures and other district matters.
The district demonstrates a strong commitment to transparency and openness at all levels. It goes beyond the basics of financial transparency by inviting customers to participate in the MUD’s decision-making process. As the online newsletter notes: “The more participation we can garner from our customers, the better job we will do in continuing to bring safe, clean and great tasting water to Lakeway.”
The website is well designed to help customers answer questions, provide feedback and get involved. It provides directions for contacting the board of directors and general manager, extends an open invitation to attend meetings or visit management at the MUD offices, and a “How Are We Doing” page encourages customers to send comments, questions, or suggestions by email. Lakeway MUD sets a great example of how to use its website as a comprehensive tool to promote citizen input and involvement.
Outstanding Financial Transparency Website – May 2011
City of Burleson
Burleson was one of the earliest cities to apply for the Leadership Circle and earned the Comptroller’s Gold award for 2010 and 2011. In addition to posting budgets and comprehensive annual financial reports for four years and weekly check registers from December 2009 to the present, Burleson has also posted simplified budget briefs and accessible annual reports. These user-friendly documents use simple language and engaging images to summarize key financial information, including local tax and utility rates, the status of various projects and future city priorities.
A prominent “Open Government” link on the home page leads users to a page with a variety of useful information about city officials and staff, council meetings and agendas, policies on ethics and purchasing, contracts, land use and zoning issues, lists of services and fees, public information requests and public notices.
Burleson demonstrates a creative use of the interactive potential of the Internet by inviting its citizens to make online utility and court payments, sign up for news and employment notifications and report and track problems. The city also uses its website to display videos of city promotions and council meetings, maps and weekly newsletters.
These innovative features helped Burleson earn a perfect rating from the Sunshine Review, a national non-profit organization that evaluates overall quality of local government websites as well as the level of financial transparency.
Outstanding Financial Transparency Website – April 2011
El Paso County
For several years, El Paso County has been a financial transparency leader among Texas local governments by posting its budgets, annual financial reports and other financial documents online. In March 2010 the county received the Comptroller’s Leadership Circle Gold designation, meeting all of the criteria to score a maximum of 15 out of 15 points on its application.
Comptroller Susan Combs created the Leadership Circle to spotlight local governments that voluntarily open their books to the public and provide a clear consistent picture of how taxpayer dollars are being spent. The Comptroller recommends that all local governments emulate the Texas state government by publishing their annual budgets, annual financial reports and check registers online to provide financial data in a user-friendly manner.
The El Paso County website includes six years of annual budgets, eight comprehensive annual financial reports (CAFRs), and searchable check registers detailing county expenditures beginning in January 2010. The online financial data are easy to locate thanks to the prominent navigation link on the home page. The data is presented in a way that makes it understandable to taxpayers, employing straightforward language that clearly describes the county’s financial state.
The Budget Summary report includes valuable data about the county, such as population demographics (age, ethnicity, birthrates, education, income levels, etc.), county tax rates, property values, revenue sources and expenses by department. It also offers useful comparisons to benchmarks, such as the number of county employers to county residents and operating expenses per capita. Most of this data is illustrated with color charts and graphs that replace tables of numbers traditionally found in financial documents. In addition, El Paso County posts other reports that would interest financial experts, including quarterly investment reports, annual financial and compliance reports, a liquidity report and a copy of the County’s “Fraud, Waste and Abuse” policy.