City contracts revealed in ‘transparency’ move

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With the click of a mouse residents can review what and where the city is spending on contracts and consultants, a move officials believe will increase transparency and accountability. 
    
Staff broke down the citys spending on outside services during fiscal year 2010 after city council members requested a more detailed report in last years budget season. The document, presented to the city council November 8, has since been posted online. 
    
Councilwoman Alicia Hughes pushed for the release of information after discovering city contracts comprise roughly 10 percent of the total budget. In a time of austerity, its critical to track how every dollar is spent, she said.
    
People should know, Hughes said. Its not only a matter of people needing to know or being entitled to know, we all have to be concerned. We all do our part to ensure were doing the best possible use [of taxpayer money].
    
Many of the contracts are for outside services the city cant afford. Others would not make sense to bring in-house, officials said. For example, in FY10 the city paid Alexandria Pest Services $180,387 for alley rodent baiting and trapping; Regal Forms $18,156 for parking ticket printing and Gold Line $646,100 for the King Street trolley.
    
Whether residents find the spending outrageous or reasonable, they should have access, Hughes said. Making the figures public only can serve to increase trust in City Hall among residents, she said. 
    
While this is the first time in recent memory the citys made contracts readily available to the public, Hughes wants the practice to become part of the budget season. Councilman Frank Fannon agrees and believes city council will ask for a similar report in time for the FY13 budget cycle. 
    
I think thats very important, he said. This is the citizens money and they have a right to see what its being spent on. Having an open and transparent government is very important to us in the city.
    
Taking a hard look at the contracts also gives elected officials a chance to streamline government spending, according to Fannon who, along with Hughes, was elected on a platform of fiscal responsibility. He points to the roughly $75,000 the city spent on a first-time homebuyer advisor. If its something already available to the public in the private sector, theres no need to use municipal dollars for it, he said.
    
Staff in the citys management and budget office compiled much of the information during the summer months, said Morgan Routt, OMB assistant director. The city council has not yet requested they repeat the job for FY11, he said. 
    
His office was not directed to look into Alexandria City Public Schools contracts, though the release of the municipal agreements with outside vendors coincided with a report by Old Dominion Watchdog, an investigative journalism outfit, highlighting ACPSs spending on consultants. 
    
Yvonne Folkerts, school board chairman, has not heard any discussion of making the districts contracts public. The information is available if anybody wants it, she said.
    
Hughes said the council can ask pointed questions this budget season about ACPS contract spending, which has increased since Sherman took over, according to Old Dominion Watchdog. 
    
But making the information public is up to them, she said.
    
We would naturally hope that with the resources given that they would be as good as stewards as possible, Hughes said. I understand there are a number of questions about consulting expenses and contracts. Were playing close attention and are definitely able to ask probing question, but as for accountability thats a school board responsibility. 

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