Councilors: Spicer Administration’s New Budget Software Not Very User-Friendly

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FRAMINGHAM – The Spicer administration delivered the Fiscal Year 2022 budget to the 11-member City Council late on Friday, just after 8:30 p.m.

Mayor Yvonne Spicer’s proposed $307.4 million budget was compiled by the City’s Chief Financial Officer Mary Ellen Kelley using a new software system called OpenGov, purchased by the administration in late 2020.

But the OpenGov software is not very open to the public, and not very user-friendly according to a couple of City Councilors.

The budget required password access for some pages.

Other pages had no numbers, but lots of photographs and colorful graphics.

Some pages had blank spots that said “In this section, compare FY20, and FY21 to the FY22 recommended for your Department. Include data if you wish, or pictures and charts. Change the layout of this section to suit how you can best tell this story]. CFO office will create a report for this section with a saved view for each department. Add specific budget cut and program/service cut information for your department.”

As of 5 p.m. today, May 1, some sections still required a password for public access, and there were still some sections of the budget that did not have numbers, including the Mayor’s own office.

Click here to access the budget.

SOURCE began emailing the City’s spokesperson about the issues Friday night and her response at 10:46 p.m. was “Thank you for the feedback. I have a note into the CFO.”

But at 9:30 a.m. today, there were still many issues with budget access for the public, even for the City Councilors, including the City Councilors on the finance subcommittee.

“Unfortunately I cannot access much of the budget due to it being password protected. As a member of the Finance Committee I find this incredulous,” said at-large City Councilor Janet Leombruno.

The City Council Chair emailed the City’s CFO just before 10 on Friday night about the issues.

“Although I appreciate the effort put into the budget and new software, unless it rapidly improves, you are going to have to resubmit in a readable format like last year that has all the required elements,” wrote Chair George P. King. Jr., who also serves on the finance subcommittee.

King told the CFO issues included:

  • The list of positions that I was able to get to in I believe Police does not have employee names, only numbers, rendering it useless
  • The detail in the software itself takes forever to load.
  • There are figures missing in sheets
  • Some passwords are required in some sheets.

“As you know I asked you about this earlier in the week as I was concerned since we had no training on the software,” wrote the City Council Chair to the CFO Friday night.

“The Charter has very specific requirements for submittal and we agreed in the Finance Committee to receive additional information.   In the past this has worked very well, and I feel like we are fixing a problem that was not broken.  This submission as of right now does not come anywhere near the statutory requirement.  This has to be resolved no later than Sunday to meet the submittal requirements of the Charter,” said the City Council Chair to the CFO on Friday night.

“There should be no password restrictions on any reports linked to Department pages.  The reports are public and loaded on the site,” said the CFO Kelley at 11 p.m. on April 30

But there were still password issues up until noon for the Councilors, and some password issues still for the public today, May 1, even as this report published at 7 p.m.

“There is no password required.  All the of the links work and it takes you to the reports. I have been on the budget portal via a couple of different devices and it does work and gives you a lot of information, including a revenue and expenditure summary of every line item  from FY18 to FY22,” said CFO Kelley at 10:50 a.m. today, May 1. “The Compensation plan is not what we wanted on the portal, but we are generating a PDF report that will look like last years.  And we will produce a report for the line items as well but the real data is on the portal.”

“The Mayor’s budget was submitted at the last minute and it was presented in a format that was confusing and in key parts inaccessible to elected officials and the public. It remains a clouded window into our revenues and spending,” said City Council Finance Subcommittee Chair Adam Steiner.

“Some of the password issues and some of the labeling issues from last night seem to have improved, however, there is no way this presentation is going to work if it is as complex as it appears.  This is not an easy view software.  I can find SOME, not all, of the information if I go through all sorts of tabs and drill down columns etc.  But it is all segregated, not intuitive at all.  For example, there is no place I can find a summary of all departments, revenues and expenditures like we used to have, with the required years data displayed.  If that is available please send directions or a direct link. This software should work so that you start at the top with all the summary data and then if you want to drill down you can do that through links.  This does not come close to that,” wrote Chair King to the CFO and Mayor Spicer this morning.

Editor’s Note: As SOURCE began the email chain, the news outlet continued to receive email communication all day long between the Mayor, the CFO, the City Council Chair, the finance subcommittee chair, and the School Committee Chair.

“There are way way too many graphics and charts and not enough basic information.  The charts are not even easy to read, proportional in a meaningful way.  The multi year views are very difficult to find and they are department by department.   There is a ton of information mixed together including enterprise funds and general fund. If I did not know better I would think this was an attempt to confuse, because this is impossible to read.  I applaud and appreciate the use of technology, but only if it allows for easier, faster and more efficient access to data.  It is making it multiple times harder to access in this case,” wrote Chair King.

“Something has to be resolved within 24 hours as this is not acceptable in any way, nor does it meet the requirements of the charter,” wrote King Saturday morning. “If this software really works as you say, then you will need to give out detailed instructions as to how to get to the data we are all used to getting or certainly the date required by charter.  If it does not you need to refile by tomorrow in the old format or similar so that we have the multi year summaries in one place as required.”

“We are not try to obfuscate.  We want to be as open and transparent as possible which means making all the information available; we have loaded all of our financial information from FY2010 to FY22 proposed onto this site but we are focusing on FY20 21 and 22 to start.  We just need to keep working on how to use the platform to see the data.  It also allows you to make your own reports, but let’s get through the budget first!  This platform will facilitate our ability to make the budget information public as we move through the budget process.  So we will be able to make a budget status report that shows the Finance Subcommittee version of the budget and get post it for the Council to see for its vote.  Yes we will work on making it simpler to read!!,” wrote the City’s Chief Financial Officer today.

“This is new, but it is a user friendly portal once you get used to it.  I am adding some narrative and context to the summary reports page and will show the incremental,” wrote Kelley to the individuals on the email thread Saturday. “It will take some getting used to but the information is there.  And it is in a number of views to be able to understand where the revenues come from and where the spending takes place.  The Department budget narratives tell you what gets done with taxpayer funds.”

“I appreciate the efforts and the link.  I will take you word that is user friendly when used to it,” wrote the City Council chair to the CFO this afternoon. “So far it does not feel that way. The more you produced as described based on this data will be better given the access or understanding issues.  Given the tight time frame we have long discussed about the budget, a steep learning curve on new software is not an ideal additional challenge.  If it made it clearly easier, that would be great, but even if it is ultimately the best software in the world, right now it is not easier or more informative.”

Just before 3 p.m., the CFO in the email thread wrote ” I have added a couple more reports to the budget summary page which breaks down revenue some more.  All the links are working and the budget reports are accessible.  Please email any specific instances you run into so we can resolve if its an issue.”

CFO Kelley also wrote “We are preparing an excel version of the budget from the budget portal so you will have something that looks familiar.  And the Compensation plan that will look the same as last year.  You will have it by tomorrow.”

As of 7 p.m., there were still no salaries or expenses listed in the budget for the Mayor’s office, and some departments still required a password to gain access to numbers.

Some of the organizational charts had names and some only had titles.

Some departments had comparison figures to previous year’s budgets and some did not.

“I am confident that the CFO will work to address the problems with the way the budget is presented, but the bigger questions will remain: Why are taxes increasing by 2.5%, the maximum allowable rate? Why the abrupt decrease in school spending? Has the massive infusion of federal funding allowed us to address key issues across our city? This is not just about the amount we spend, but HOW we spend our residents’ tax dollars,” said Finance Subcommittee chair Steiner this afternoon, May 1.

” It will be essential to determine if the administration did everything it can to reduce spend in ways that do not impact direct services. We need to look at whether there are efficiencies that have not been implemented. These are the key issues we will address over the next several weeks beginning with the City Council meeting on the night May 4 and continuing through three weeks of intensive finance subcommittee hearings. I welcome members of the public to be part of that process,” said Steiner, who represents District 3.

SOURCE media requested a copy of the OpenGov contract signed by the City of Framingham in 2020 via public records request today.

The City signed a 3-year contract with the California-based company on September 30, 2020.

The annual cost for Opengov is $45,500.

“When you add up what we are replacing with the OpenGov contract it is actually $5,000 less than the combined cost of the programs we were using for open data and School and city transparency pages on an annual basis,” said Kelley to SOURCE last year. “We are in the process of terminating the current ClearGov contracts.  We want the two sites to overlap a little bit so we have FY21 budget information still accessible on the website until we can get the open checkbook info up with OpenGov. We will issue the FY22 Capital Budget via the OpenGov platform.”

The City Council’s Finance Subcommittee will meet with department heads over the next couple of weeks. The 5-member subcommittee will then make recommendations to the full 11-member City Council on approval or potential cuts in the budget per department.

The finance subcommittee can vote to increase the school department budget, but only has the authority to approve or lower all other department budget line items.

The full 11-member City Council is expect to vote on a budget in June.

The Mayor will have 10 days to approve or veto.

The City Council can override any veto with a 2/3rd vote.

editor

email: editor@FraminghamSource.com call or text at 508-315-7176

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