Meridian Star

July 28, 2013

County spending report should be online too

By Clay Hamilton / The Meridian Star
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN — I don’t know if you’ve ever walked through the Courthouse Annex building and noticed a large pile of green bar printer paper sitting out there on a table but it’s there occasionally. I’m told that’s the monthly report of what the county has spent.

    Being a pile of paper means finding specifically what you are looking for would be tedious and quite time consuming. It’s not a trivial amount of paper either. So it would appear to the casual eye that the county is adopting a “hide in plain sight” strategy for the way taxpayer dollars are dispersed.

    Recently 1,500 or so people signed a petition to have a bond issue called for a public vote and the county had no problem whatsoever scanning all of those pages and putting them on the homepage of the official Lauderdale County website. On a really good scanner I imagine that took a minimum of a half day and probably more like a day to accomplish. For some reason that was a priority, even though it compromised many people’s personal information and made their signature readily downloadable by identity thieves.

    Politically motivated? I have no idea. Irresponsible? As an IT person of 20 years - absolutely.

    So also as an IT person, I’d like to propose something else. Something that would take far less time than scanning a petition and be infinitely more useful and also a money saver.

    Any computer for the last 20 years or so has had the ability to just send what normally goes to the printer to a file on the computer’s storage system that is just plain text. It takes much less time to do than actually sending the information to the printer since you have to wait for the printer to actually, well, print the document.     Based on the size of the stack of paper I’ve seen it probably takes an hour to print.

    By sending that report to a text file on the computer, you could also (in much less time than printing) upload that file to the county website. Creating a link on the homepage would take a couple more minutes. The whole process could take far less time than just printing the report and certainly cost far less because you are now eliminating paper, and printer ribbons and printer maintenance from the process. In the old days we called it going paperless.

    If you wanted to get really fancy and spend an extra 10 minutes on the process, you could convert the raw data to an Excel spreadsheet. You could then make that spreadsheet downloadable from the website. This would make it easy to search the data, perform calculations and more carefully scrutinize the report.

    I think the word is “transparency.” Yep that’s it. It would make the workings of our county government more transparent. Since the county government is not really concerned with matters of national security, there is no legitimate reason not to want more transparency in how they operate. Having more eyes on that report, more often would ultimately lead to better government.

    And if better government isn’t job one, then we have the wrong people for the job, right?

    So I propose that county immediately begin posting that monthly expenditure report online in the same spot they felt the need to post the petition in. I contend that a whole year of posting that report would take less time than that one petition did to produce.

    I also urge them to do it in a simple Excel spreadsheet format.

    If it’s already there (I couldn’t find it by looking at http://lauderdalecounty.org) — I suggest you move it to the same spot you put the petition in.

    With the economy as troubled as it is, we all need to be vigilant about making sure we get the most goodie for every dollar we spend. It is what will ultimately make Lauderdale County a better place to live.