What are you paying for? New app visualizes Portland's $340 million budget

Believe us, this highly organized infographic is a lot easier to interpret than the official City of Portland documents. Screenshot from OpenMaine. Believe us, this highly organized infographic is a lot easier to interpret than the official City of Portland documents.

Have you ever wondered what exactly your tax dollars are paying for?

Thanks to a new web app, developed by local activist web developers Rob Korobkin, Mike Lacourse and Joey Brunelle, you can find out through an intimate look at Portland’s revenues and expenses

Dubbed OpenMaine, the app allows users to plug in their annual property tax and receive a visually appealing x-ray of Portland’s 340 million dollar budget, where they can see what every cent of their contribution funds. 

The results will obviously vary from person to person, but the app loads with a default of $2,000, which is lower than what many homeowners actually pay in annual property tax. At 2.111 percent, property tax rates in Portland are slightly higher than the rest of the country. According to Zillow, the median price for a home in Portland is around $364,000. A citizen owning a home at that value would be paying about $5,000 in property taxes for that one property annually. The value of both property value and taxes in Portland has risen steadily since 2012, so OpenMaine’s default of $2,000 in property tax is actually quite conservative.

But using that figure as a benchmark to examine the breakdown of the city budget, the app reveals that $1,096 of that goes into the General Fund (debt service, health and human services, parks and recreation, public works, police and fire departments, parking, city employees, etc.), $609 funds Education (salaries, benefits, debt service, and supplies), and $293 collects into Enterprise Funds (used to pay for the Sewer Fund, the Jetport, Stormwater, and the Fish Pier).

Brunelle, an owner of a digital communications company and city council hopeful, said that he created this app because he wanted to increase transparency between the work done at City Hall and the people of Portland — as he’s done in the recent past by blogging about City Council decisions and occasionally live streaming meetings in their entirety. Brunelle believes that projects like OpenMaine should fall under the city’s responsibility. 

“There’d be a greater degree of trust and accuracy [with City Hall],” said Brunelle. “This is something I’m going to push very heavily if I get elected. We need to do a much better job at communicating with the public so they understand.”

Open Maine started about 10 months ago when Brunelle was lamenting with friends about how difficult it is to figure out what actually is happening at City Hall at any given time. “It’s hard to tell what’s actually in the budget,” he would complain to fellow web designers Rob Korobkin and Mike LaCourse.

"I care a lot about this town," said Korobkin. "And as a homeowner, I pay a fair amount in taxes. I believe in transparency and the potential for the Internet to transform what our society looks like. Facilitating this project just seemed like a great way to help move our community in that direction."

Brunelle, Korobkin, and their team of volunteers encountered this annoyance first hand while building the app. Their biggest hurdle wasn’t coding, it was data entry. Although all city budget information is available to the public, it isn’t digital, searchable, or easily accessible. Interested citizens must pore over dense PDFs and draw conclusions from seemingly disparate sections of data if they want to discern anything of note about the city budget. Brunelle and his team hope they have now made it easier.

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“We entered everything in by hand,” said Brunelle. “It took months; a major effort.” 

Because users are able to visualize Portland’s revenue stream, as well as view historical data as far back as 2015, notable trends can be observed.

For one, property taxes have increased dramatically over the past four years, while revenue from the state has also increased. Certain departments, like Waste Removal and Public Health, have seen big cuts.

Without offering specifics, Brunelle implied that he would tweak the budget if he could because a city budget is a reflection of what "people in power prioritize in society" — something Brunelle believes Portland’s leaders could stand to reevaluate.

“I have general priorities for the budget that I would love to see money more aligned with, like more support for affordable housing contracts and public health services,” said Brunelle. “Our priorities should be keeping our city affordable, and keeping its citizens healthy with access to the services they need.”

Although unclear whether inspired by Brunelle's efforts, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said that City Hall is working on promoting public transparency by offering more live-stream options for their meetings and making city data more efficient and accessible. 

"We are in the midst of overhauling our entire software and data system by implementing TylerTechnologies software," said Grondin. "This will greatly improve our ability to share data more easily, quickly, and in ways that are more user-friendly for the public to digest." 

In the meantime, see what your money’s paying for in Portland at http://openmaine.org/.  

If you have any questions about the app, Rob Korobkin can be reached at: 617-733-1780.

 

Last modified onTuesday, 11 July 2017 15:28