Potential is strong for SeeTheSpending website

Published 1:01 am Sunday, September 18, 2011

OXFORD — Warren County paid $665,317.15 to attorneys in 2010.

Too high? Too low? Just right?

Well, it depends.

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The important thing is that the citizens of Warren County, from whose pockets the money came, now have the hard data at their fingertips. They can be the judges without guesswork and speculation.

This development comes at the hands of the Jackson-based Mississippi Center for Public Policy, directed by veteran good-government leader Forest Thigpen.

The easy-to-use website — SeeTheSpending.org — debuted last week.

It is a near-miraculous step forward in state and county government transparency. How public money is spent has traditionally been a matter of public record, but finding records and mining them for specific, accurate information has been the challenge. Until now, it has taken a lot of time and effort and delay, sometimes inflicted by records custodians who figured that how much a county spent on tires or grader blades and from which vendors wasn’t anybody’s business but theirs.

Now, in the comfort of their homes, people with access to the Internet can find out, for example, that Claiborne County supervisors approved $18,922.51 for officials and employees to travel in their personal vehicles, also in 2010.

The site includes searchable county and state checkbooks for six years. Every individual payment is listed.

There are a few limitations.

One is that 20 of the state’s 82 counties are not yet participating in the system, which, by the way, cost taxpayers nothing. Some pretty large counties, including Hinds, Lee and Lowndes are not yet online. (The others are Calhoun, Chickasaw, Clarke, Humphreys, Itawamba, Jackson, Jasper, Jefferson, Kemper, Lafayette, Monroe, Newton, Oktibbeha, Perry, Quitman, Union and Wayne.)

Another limitation is that no city government or school district information is in the database. A third is that it’s only to be updated once per year. People checking on current spending will still need to trek to courthouses and city halls.

A fourth challenge is that not all counties break out their spending into the same categories. This makes county-to-county comparisons difficult if, say, one county has “food for prisoners” listed separately and another includes food costs under “jail operations.”

But the site is precise. If you served on a jury or worked at a polling place any time since 2004, your payment is in the database. Type in your name and the date and amount of the payment will pop up.

It really needs to be stressed that this is not a tool to end corruption. Thigpen and the Mississippi Center for Public Policy make no such claim. People determined to steal, bilk, hide costs or otherwise cheat taxpayers will still find a way.

The website is merely a tool that, if properly used, can give rise to questions, comparisons and changes that lead to better government overall.

Let’s go back to the cost of legal services. Warren County’s $665,317.15 for legal fees translates to $13.83 per person. Harrison County, which has a far greater population, paid $734,220.19, or $4.11 per capita, only 30 percent as much.

This could be the result of what’s called economy of scale because not much legal expense is discretionary. Supervisors employ board attorneys and counties must pay the costs to defend indigent adults and youths accused of crimes. No choice. Some counties are more active than others in providing attorneys for port authorities or bond issues or development boards. And all have to pay lawyers when counties are sued for negligence or misfeasance.

But what if Harrison County has found a better way to contain costs? If the disparity results in Warren County questioning its own spending and finding a way to trim, then that’s a positive for the local treasury. And, as Thigpen pointed out in an article in The Clarion-Ledger, this benefit extends to all commodities. If a set of truck tires costs twice in Hinds County what the same tires cost in Prentiss, then clearly something is amiss.

The Internet and forward-looking organizations such as the Mississippi Center for Public Policy have provided elected officials wonderful new tools to monitor and manage spending to achieve optimum results. It can’t hurt for supervisors to know that every payment on an approved claims docket may be viewed with super-ease by any constituent (or anyone else) who wants to know where the money went.

By definition, however, a tool is useless unless used. Hammers and saws don’t build houses by themselves.

SeeTheSpending empowers the people, but it’s still up to the people and their elected officials to use it effectively.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.