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New tool brings clarity to finances in town of Auburn

By Rod Lee

The same inclination toward transparency that motivated Chris Bullock to launch ClearGov recently compelled the town of Auburn to sign up for services provided by Mr. Bullock’s company, which touts itself as having gathered financial data “on nearly every city, town and village across the U.S. to create the world’s most comprehensive municipal financial database.”

Among these are the city of Framingham, the village of Rye Brook, the village of Pinehurst, the city of Decatur and the Walpole Public Schools.

Addressing the newly established partnership with ClearGov in response to an email on September 10th, Auburn Town Manager Julie A. Jacobson said “we started looking into it in the spring. We sought and received approval from Annual Town Meeting to fund the start-up for FY19 (there is an annual cost each year). We do not know the impacts on the public yet as it was just launched last week. We do know that the system will make it easy for citizens and taxpayers to view all aspects of the town’s budget, enhancing transparency and providing a tool that did not exist previously.”

It probably comes as no surprise to people who know Mr. Bullock that ClearGov came into existence. A data analytics professional and serial entrepreneur, Mr. Bullock was trying to gather information about the costs associated with construction of a new elementary school in Hopkinton in 2015 when he discovered that these were “buried” in a two hundred thirty-page downloadable PDF and that there was “no context to the numbers.

“I could see a tremendous need for clarifying government data and putting it into perspective,” he said.

Ms. Jacobson said the town of Auburn is “part of a growing movement of Massachusetts municipalities” that are taking openness to a new level by utilizing the ClearGov platform, which also showcases basic profiles of every municipality in the state. “Auburn has added detailed revenue and expenditure breakdowns of its General Fund data, as well as [the town’s] budgeted funds and information regarding the town’s debt.”

Elaborating on this, Ms. Jacobson said “we are excited to launch our new Fiscal Transparency Center to enable citizens to easily view the breakdown of the town’s revenues and expenses as well as demographics. This new tool allows taxpayers to see how their tax dollars are spent and provides a better understanding of the fiscal operations of the town of Auburn.”

In welcoming Auburn to the fold, Mr. Bullock said “Auburn is a community which takes pride in being transparent and accountable. Transparent, accountable leadership drives citizen trust and engagement by providing user-friendly access to the inner workings of government.”

ClearGov sources publicly available financial data on municipalities to develop “easy-to-understand transparency websites.” These can be accessed free of charge. Municipalities can choose to upgrade and enhance such websites with more robust information and by offering context by way of commentary on the figures.

The new “Financial Transparency Center” link on the town of Auburn’s web page puts at visitors’ fingertips such initial information—based on statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Massachusetts Department of Revenue—as “population” (16,303; .66% higher than the state median), “median home value” ($239,800; .30% lower than the state median), “median household income” ($71,522, .8% higher than the state median), “revenues” ($62.7 million, budgeted; $3,824 per capita year), “expenses” ($61.9 million; $3774 per capital year) and “number of schoolchildren” (2,611). Visitors can also go deeper into the figures if they like.

That interest in the ClearGov model of keeping citizens in the know on municipal finances is growing is reflected in the notation “Similar Communities to Explore,” which points to such neighboring Central Massachusetts towns as Oxford, Millbury, Southbridge and Webster as worthy of examination.

Residents of Auburn have been able to go the town’s website for health alerts (news about mosquito spraying and the West Nile Virus, for instance), notice of a hearing on a proposed plastic bag ban, to look up real estate taxes and to learn of vacancies on boards and commissions.

Now they can go there to link up with the Fiscal Transparency Center and be better informed about the town’s finances than ever.

Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.