Gateway a Useful Tool for Reporting on Local Government Finance

The Indiana Gateway for Government Units — generally just called “Gateway” — is a tool developed in 2010 by a collaboration between the State of Indiana and Indiana University (the Indiana Business Research Center) to make local government financial submissions easily accessible to the public. Local units have been required to use it for the past two years for submission of standard budget documents during the fall budget process.

Although some data has been available to the public since 2011, very recently some major upgrades were released that makes it much easier for local officials and members of the public to retrieve local government financial information. Because Gateway is now to the point where it can actually be useful to members of the public, I though I would bring it to the attention of the readers of MoCoGov.

The Report Builder for Gateway is available at: https://gateway.ifionline.org/report_builder/

The Report Builder provides a number of pre-made reports for all levels of local government — counties, cities and towns, townships, libraries, fire districts,   school districts, solid waste management districts, etc., and the user interface is pretty intuitive.

The following are a couple of reports that might be particularly interesting to taxpayers (along with some instructions for accessing the reports).

  • Employee Compensation (100R)
    • Provides the salaries of all public employees for all levels of local government, state government, public universities, and even public charter schools
    • Choose Employee Compensation (100R) ->  Employee Compensation. Choose your county and then the unit of government within that county. For state and public university employees, choose “State” as your county.
  • Budget Estimate and Tax Rate
    • Provides the information on the Form 4B — sometimes called the “16-line statement” — submitted by local governments for each fund with a tax rate.  Includes the adopted budget, the property tax levy, and the property tax rate for each fund adopted during the fall budget process for the next year.
    • Choose Budgets -> Budget Estimate – Financial Statement – Tax Rate.  Choose your county, year, unit, and fund.
    • For example, see the report for the 2013 Monroe County General Fund below.  You can see, for example, that the general fund budget adopted by the County Council and then certified by the Department of Local Government Finance is $20,300,041, with a property tax levy of $15,097,664, and a tax rate of 0.2389 for every $100 of assessed value.

2013 4B for Monroe County General Fund

  • Budget Summary
    • Provides a summary of budget estimates for each unit of government, for each fund and department, summarized by budget category (i.e., personal services, supplies, services and charges, and capital outlays).
    • Choose Budgets -> Budget Summary
  • Line-Item Budget Estimate
    • Provides a detailed line-by-line budget for each unit of government, for each fund and department.
    • Choose Budgets -> Line-Item Budget Estimate
  • Net Assessed Value by District
    • Provides the net (after exemptions and deductions) assessed value for each taxing district in a county
    • Choose Assessed Value -> Certification of Net Assessed Values by District
    • This report is particularly interesting because it shows not only the assessed value for real property and personal property (i.e., industrial equipment), but also shows the amount of assessed value captured by Tax Increment Finance (TIF) districts for each taxing district.
    • The following screen shot shows the report for Monroe County for 2013

Screen Shot 2013-03-17 at 7.51.05 PM

  • Debt Management
    • Multiple reports that show all debt owed by local government. This set of reports is particularly interesting, because it shows not only the standard property tax-based general obligation bonds (for example, the Showers purchase bond), but also equipment lease-purchases, such as the Vactor and street sweeper trucks purchased by the new Monroe County Stormwater Management Program, and the Innkeeper’s Tax-backed land purchases for the Convention Center
  • Redevelopment Commissions
    • Includes links to all of the annual reports for each of the Redevelopment Commissions in each county. The Redevelopment Commissions are responsible for the TIF districts in each county. The Monroe County Redevelopment Commission annual reports concern the county’s 3 TIF districts, and the Bloomington Redevelopment Commission annual reports concern the City of Bloomington’s 6 TIF districts as well as the City’s Certified Tech Park.
  • Disbursements by Fund and Department Report
    • Shows the actual expenditures (as opposed to the budgeted expenditures) for each fund and department of a local unit of government for a prior year.
    • Choose Annual Financial Report -> Disbursements by Fund and Department. Expenditures are summarized by category (i.e., Personal Expenses, Supplies, Services and Charges, and Capital Outlays).
  • Grants
    • Grants have become an increasingly essential funding mechanism for many aspects of local government. The Grants report shows all of the Federal (including Federal pass-through) grants received by each unit of government during the previous year. Note that this report does not include local grants and grants from non-government foundations.
    • Choose Annual Financial Report -> Grants, and choose the unit of government.

My examples above only scratch the surface of the data available in the new Gateway reports. I encourage everyone interested in local government to give the system a try!

Appropriations vs. Cash: A Crucial Distinction

The distinction between having cash in a particular fund and having an appropriation in a fund is a crucial distinction that is often confused. Both are needed before money can be spent from a fund. Neither is enough by itself.  Let’s consider the distinction:

Having cash in a fund is just like having money in a bank account. Cash can come into a fund from various sources — taxes, sales of government services, fees, etc. Once it is deposited into a fund, it sits there in a fund until it is spent, just like money in a bank account.

Example: A county could create a Dog License Fund and designate all fees from mandatory dog licenses to to into the Dog License Fund. As dog license fees are received by the county, they would be deposited into the Dog License Fund, and its balance would grow over time, until the money was spent.

Appropriation, on the other hand, is simply official permission to spend money out of a fund. In Indiana, each unit of government has a designated fiscal body which is required to provide that permission to spend; for cities, it is the city council, for counties the county council, for townships the township board, etc.  Appropriations are most typically performed during the annual budget process; however, from time to time fiscal bodies will find it necessary to appropriate additional funds after a budget year has begun (e.g., for unexpected expenses). These appropriations are called additional appropriations. In most cases, appropriations only last until the end of the budget year (the calendar year), after which they expire.

Example: The County Council could appropriate $1000 from the Dog License Fund to the Sheriff, to provide training to animal control officers. This appropriation would provide the Sheriff permission to spend $1000 out of the Dog License Fund, if the cash is available in the fund, to provide training to animal control officers.

It is probably clear by now that two things are required before a government official can spend money out of a fund: the cash must actually be there in the fund AND the official must have an appropriation from the fund. Neither is useful by itself. If cash is in a fund, it just sits there until it is appropriated and spent. But without the cash, an appropriation is worthless — although there is permission to spend, there may be no money in the fund to spend! Note that it is perfectly acceptable to appropriate more money than there actually is in a given fund — until the money is there, though, the appropriation is worthless; despite the appropriation (permission to spend) there is nothing there to spend!

Example: The County Council creates a new Dog License Fund, and designates all fees from dog licenses to go into the Dog License Fund. It also appropriates $1000 out of the fund to the Sheriff for training for animal control officers. At the beginning, before any dog license fees are deposited into the fund, the appropriation is essentially worthless. Although the Sheriff has permission to spend up to $1000 for training, until the fees are actually deposited into the fund, there is nothing to spend. After the fees start to build up in the fund, the Sheriff may start spending the money on training. Note that there may not be enough cash in the fund to support the entire appropriation. For example, let’s say dog license fees only generate $700. Even though the Sheriff has $1000 of appropriations in the fund, if there is only $700 available in the fund, she or he would only be able to spend $700 on training. Conversely, say the dog license fees generated $2000 in revenue that was deposited into the Dog License Fund. The Sheriff still only has $1000 in appropriations, and can therefore only spend up to $1000 on training.

A couple of other notes about appropriations and cash:

  • There are times in which the fiscal body may appropriate more than is available in a fund. This occurs particularly in funds that are supported by revenue sources that are uncertain — for example, fees, fines, building permits, planning fees, etc. The fiscal body may want to appropriate funds only once a year during the annual budget-setting process — but the official who has the appropriation can still only spend the appropriation when the cash is actually available in the fund. To reiterate — there is nothing wrong with this. This is NOT overspending or overdrafting, or anything like that; even with an appropriation an official can’t actually spend money that isn’t there to be spent.
  • An appropriation is permission to spend, it isn’t a requirement to spend. Just because a fiscal body appropriates money for a particular function does not mean that the official with the appropriation has to spend the appropriation (absent some other statutory requirement to spend the appropriation). For a particularly silly hypothetical example, let’s say that the County Council decides to appropriate $10,000 in a fund to the Sheriff for clown therapy in the jail. The Sheriff might decide that clown therapy is a waste of money and decline to spend the appropriation. An appropriation is not required to be spent.

Hopefully this helps clarify an important distinction that is often confused in media reporting and popular discussion about government finance.