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NEW: Providence Receives a “D+” for Spending Transparency

Thursday, February 07, 2013

 

A report issued today by the Rhode Island Public Interest Research Group says Providence only earns a 'D+' for its transparency.

Two days after revealing that Rhode Island loses $229 million each year to offshore tax loopholes, the Rhode Island Public Interest Research Group (RIPIRG) has struck again with another report that should raise the alarms for advocates of open government.

Following an analysis of a national report on spending transparency in the nation’s 30 largest cities, the RIPIRG has used similar methodology to grade Rhode Island’s capital city and has given Providence a ‘D+’ overall.

“This Providence analysis follows a national report, released in January, which evaluated each city’s progress toward comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility,” RIPIRG said.

“Rhode Islanders expect to be able to instantly view their cell phone minutes, the location of their packages, and the menu of any restaurant they pass on the street,” said Ryan Pierannunzi, Tax and Budget Associate with the organization and a coauthor of the report. “Why should they expect information about city government to be any less transparent?”

The national report, “Transparency in City Spending: Rating the Availability of Online Government Data in America’s Largest Cities,” found that over half of America’s 30 most populous cities provide an online database of their government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail.

Using the same scoring criteria, the report’s authors gave Providence a ‘D+’ because the city “provides some basic budget documents online and posts limited checkbook-level expenditure information related to grants” but doesn’t provide “checkbook-level information for the majority of city spending, and has plenty of room for improvement.”

One of the examples RIPIRG points out is that the city doesn’t provide recipient-specific spending data on its municipal expenses in a way that taxpayers can search by city department, keyword or vendor and download for further data analysis.

“The city should also post historical expenditure data from previous fiscal years and provide tax subsidy information that lists the benefits specific companies receive from the city’s tax credits, exemptions and abatements,” RIPIRG said. “Providence should develop a one-stop transparency website to centralize city spending information and make it easier for citizens to access such information.”

Providence compared well to neighboring Boston, which received a ‘D-’ but failed to come close to New York City’s top-tier grade of an ‘A’.

“City spending has a profound impact on residents’ lives through basic government functions such as policing, sanitation and public health,” Pierannunzi said. “Spending transparency can help Providence hold their elected leaders accountable and ensure that tax dollars are well spent.”

Providence has established a goal of being more transparent and, two years ago, the city created a commission that came up with a list of recommendations for ways in which Providence could improve its overall transparency.

One such recommendation was the establishment of an “open checkbook” of government expenditures.

“If the city follows through on the suggestions of our 14-member commission, Providence will improve dramatically when it comes to transparency in spending as well as a variety of other areas,” said John Marion, Executive Director of Common Cause Rhode Island and the chair of the commission.

The report released by the RIPIRG offers cities a number of recommendations in order to achieve spending transparency, including the above-mentioned online database of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail that is searchable and downloadable.

In addition, the organization suggests that cities provide web visitors with copies of its contracts with vendors, disclose the tax subsidies awarded to individual companies and recipients, maintain a central transparency portal for all city spending tools and documents and allow residents to view service requests submitted by other residents and the city’s responses to those requests.

“We hope that this new report can serve as a resource to Providence as the city moves forward in its continued efforts to improve city transparency,” Pierannunzi said.

 

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