Just in time for budget season, it’s possible to track city spending down to the penny, through a new Web tool launched this week by Brett Mandel, as part of his campaign for city controller.
“Unless we have the ability to see where every single dollar is spent, we end up having the kind of ridiculous debates we’ve had in recent years, where we take what we spent last year and we only tweak it at the margins,” he said.
Armed with every detail of city spending, Mandel is hoping his Web tool will arm residents with information and provoke a budget conversation that goes much deeper that the typical budget talks.
If you are able to see where every penny of your tax dollar goes you’re able to say ‘wait a second, I’m not so sure we want to be spending here,’” he said. “I want real Philadelphians to get involved in the debates over how our tax dollars are raised and spent.”
Launched on Tuesday, the Web tool is a data tree based on last year’s budget information, provided by the city, which lists spending on all line items across city departments. Users can enter the individual budget item they’d like to see and find all of financial information tied to it.
Data is so detailed that users can search for spending by department or the salaries of individual employees and the travel reimbursements they collect.
Few people, even city officials like council members ever see the city’s budget in such rich detail, Mandel said.
“Nobody – not city council, not the mayor – has seen this level of detail at the click of a mouse,” he said. “They don’t see where every single dollar goes.”
Acknowledging the fact that the Web tool was brand new, Mandel said he hadn’t gotten any negative feedback on the idea.
But, in a phone conversation late Tuesday afternoon, Controller Alan Butkovitz said the information on the site was inaccurate.
“He said I’m making $128,000 but does not note anywhere that I’m giving back about $20,000 to the city since the 2008 economic downturn,” Butkovitz said. “If you’re going to put up a website and say this provides accurate data … the first rule is accuracy. You’ve got to vet this thing and make sure your numbers are consistent. He didn’t bother to check the data.”
Mandel said he hopes the tool will demonstrate his approach to running the controllers should he win his battle to beat Butkovitz.
“I don’t believe the incumbent is showing us where we can be more efficient — more effective,” Mandel said. “So, I put this up to illustrate the fact that I can do this.”
He pledged to continue the tool if elected and include constantly updated budget information.
Butkovitz said it was indeed a demonstration of Mandel’s style.
“It’s the worst kind of uncorroborated gossip,” Butkovitz said. “And, it kind of indicates that he’s a shoot from the hip guy.”
The primary contest for controller is likely to be among the most watched in the city during the spring election season.