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Comptroller's Office Launches Database of City Expenditures

Monday, July 26, 2010

As part of the station’s role as a watchdog of government transparency, WNYC has been following the $508 million renovation of the Brooklyn Bridge.  So when a database detailing exactly what New York City is spending went live this month, we took it for a test drive.

Let’s say you’re a radio news producer who’s interested in governmental accountability. So you decide to track the money New York City is spending on the Brooklyn Bridge rehab.  You’d go about it several ways: you’d call the city’s Department of Transportation for details. You’d file several Freedom of Information Law requests. And now you’d visit CheckbookNYC.com, a new website unveiled by the New York City Comptroller earlier this month. 

So just what is this website?  “You can explain it in one sentence,” says Ari Hoffnung, the executive director of the comptroller’s budget and accountancy groups. “Checkbook NYC is a searchable database of all city expenditures. Somebody goes to Staples, somebody works for the city on behalf of a city agency, spends $12.32 on paper, it’s there. If somebody goes to buy a fire engine, for $1.3 million, it’s there. And everything in between.”  

In other words, it’s what your checkbook might look like, if you wrote over $60 billion dollars worth of checks a year for invoices, payroll, or infrastructure projects. Checkbook NYC lets you view spending by city agency, category, date, or payee.  Every day, this database goes to the city’s financial system and says "Hey! Give me all the transactions you did yesterday,” Hoffnung explains.  “We take in, it’s usually a couple thousand transactions and we append it to the database. So this database is getting all of the transactions in a day lag.”   
 
But there are limitations: the data only goes back to January 1st of this year, which is when the city upgraded its financial management software. Privacy and security concerns shield details of some transactions. You can’t compare actual spending versus budget. And you can’t simply input the terms “Brooklyn Bridge” and find out what the city has spent on the renovation so far.

But you CAN use the system to find out that the city has paid Skanska Koch--the company that was awarded the $508 million dollar contract--about $24 million dollars so far this year for its work on the Brooklyn Bridge. But for New York City Comptroller John Liu, the intent behind the database goes beyond seeing who’s paying what to whom. “It’s not just about satiating people’s curiosity,” he says. “It is also about sending a very strong message to everybody in city government--myself included--that the public will be able to scrutinize, very carefully, how we’re spending their money.”

Liu could be invoking a principle of particle physics: the act of observing something changes its behavior. To put it another way, he wants New Yorkers to bear witness to the city’s spending. And his office has already gotten that strong message.     

“Frankly, I was surprised that my own office spent a large amount of money on postage,” the comptroller says. “I think a lot of it is clearly justifiable and necessary, but it’s something that makes us more sensitive to exactly what we’re spending money on.”

So from his point of view, the system is a success. But it’s very much a work in progress. And while Ari Hoffnung has his own ideas about where he wants to take it--he dreams of a system with more details about location, or payroll, for example--he wants the public's input.

“It would be great would be great if WNYC listeners who visited this site and had some ideas about what they wanted to see would go on and share their ideas with us,” he says.  So weigh in, listeners. Or:  just satisfy your curiosity about what the city spends on bottled water or debt service.  

If you have feedback on checkbooknyc.com, visit their Web site or email info@comptroller.nyc.gov.

Full disclosure: “WNYC” can be found in the Checkbook NYC database. The station received two payments totaling $8.6 million from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs for our Jerome L. Greene Performance Space.

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