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Colorado’s Innovative ‘Online Checkbook’ Rarely Updated, Technologically Challenged

Jun 18, 2019
Originally published on June 18, 2019 10:03 am

The state of Colorado is neglecting an online transparency tool that it launched 10 years ago to let taxpayers monitor government spending in real time.

When state lawmakers in 2009 passed the bill to create the Transparency Online Project, or TOP, they proclaimed in all capital letters it would be updated every five days.

But a review by Rocky Mountain Community Radio found that despite that state law, the site is only being updated a handful of times each year, if at all.

It took three months for the state to load the first expenses of the new Polis administration. And records show there were apparently zero updates to the online checkbook in 2017.

A further review of the website last week done in conjunction with the leader of a statewide watchdog group found other flaws with the site.

For example, a page that should have showed $1.9 million in recent travel expenses at the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment got stuck on a loading screen for more than 15 minutes without displaying any results.

Jeff Roberts, the head of Colorado’s Freedom of Information Coalition , said it doesn’t appear the site remains a priority for the state.

“The legislation says that transparency of state funding is a priority,” he said. “If you’re going to have something like this, do the best you can to make it useful for people. There’s a lot of information in (this system), that’s pretty obvious, but getting that information out of the database is pretty clunky.”

Roberts said online portals like the TOP system are valuable tools for taxpayers.

“I do think they should be priorities because the alternative is when someone does have a question about state government or local government spending, they do have to do an open records request,” he said. “In Colorado, that could mean waiting a few days. It could mean paying for the research and retrieval in the system. ...You just don’t know who is out there that has a particular question on a particular day about how their tax dollars are used.”

Asked last month why the online checkbook wasn’t being updated regularly, Doug Platt, the spokesman for the state's department of personnel and administration, said Colorado has never had any money to operate and maintain the website.

“There was never any funding or any staffing associated with what was a fairly major undertaking … in terms of data management,” Platt said. “We flat did not have the resources in dollars to hire individuals or in personnel to handle that as a priority, with competing priorities.”

Platt said the TOP system also recently suffered a technical glitch after a data automation system failed. He said the state was able to get it back online with some help from government officials in Utah who operate a similar system.

Ice cream, airfare and pizza

When the system is loading, it contains $42 billion dollars’ worth of receipts from this fiscal year. Many of the line items are smaller in scale and include such things as office supplies, postage stamps, pizza runs for the governor’s office and $1,416 worth of ice cream for a function at the secretary of state’s office.

But others, such as a recent receipt for an advertising agency in Switzerland, reveal the scope of spending at the governor’s Office of Economic Development.

Residents can also view years’ worth of travel expenses for elected officials and see receipts for trips spanning from Hawaii to Vietnam to Brussels.

And if they have the patience to sift through thousands of line items of results, they can even see what newspapers the state subscribes to and the receipt for the Washington D.C.-based photographer Gov. Jared Polis hired to capture some behind the scenes moments after his inauguration.

When the system was created, elected officials touted that it would save government time and money by reducing the number of records requests that came in about the spending.

But for some transactions, taxpayers would have to make a call or ask more questions to get some important details about a receipt. For example, airfare receipts on the system often do not list the official who took the flight or provide details about the purpose of the travel expense.

‘Where are my tax dollars going?’

Former Gov. Bill Ritter’s administration launched the TOP system in 2009 and praised it as a tool to make the state government more transparent. It was also nominated for a transparency award.

In his state of the state speech at the time, Ritter gave a shout out to then Republican State Rep. Don Marostica for helping to make the project a reality.

Marostica said he’s a “numbers guy” who thought it was important that residents be able to view where their tax dollars were going each week.

“I pay a lot of taxes,” Marostica said. “I make a lot of money. I continue to make a lot of money. And I want to know where my 4.35% is going. And I think there’s a lot of people that way, both Democrats and Republicans.”

Marostica was disappointed when he learned the site wasn’t being updated regularly anymore.

“The government can spend a lot of money in a month,” he said as he talked about why frequent updates are important.

He also questioned the state’s explanations for why the updates had fallen behind.

“They always have time,” he said. “That’s just an excuse by the staff. Staff always have time if they make the time. And once they got it updated. It’d be easy to update on a weekly basis.”

Days after Rocky Mountain Community Radio spoke with Platt about the system, it started getting updated more frequently.

He attributed the change to a software update that freed up staff time to update it.

Still, it’s not being updated every five days as the state law says it should. The site hasn’t been updated since June 3.

Platt said about 1,500 unique users visited the TOP system in April.

You can access the site by clicking here.

Find a transaction you have questions about? Email me at scott.franz@kunc.org.

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