County residents get fresh look at financials

Beaufort County is poised to become more financially transparent.

We applaud a recent decision by county leader to purchase new software, called Munis Citizen Transparency, that will allow anyone with access to a computer to sort, search, analyze and download the county's financial information.

"It's basically a copy of our checkbooks," said County Councilman Brian Flewelling.

While the program will cost $15,000 per year, it's less expensive than staff members producing reports each month for County Council and others. Alicia Holland, the county's chief financial officer, estimates the county would spent more than doubt that amount in staff time to produce reports.

Already, much of the county's financial data is available at its website including annual and quarterly budget reports as well as vendor payment reports and department budgets. But as anyone who has attempted to glean meaning from those long columns of numbers can attest, it can be difficult to locate one specific number or derive meaning from segmented data that may not always be up-to-date. For those who are not CPAs, the process can be daunting and frustrating.

The new software promises to fix those problems by allowing users to manipulate raw data to create custom charts and graphs. This should, hopefully, give meaning and clarity to those numbers.

And unlike programs that only provide a static snapshot of data, this software is updated weekly with the most recent numbers, according to the program's creator, Tyler Technologies.

Our one concern is that the software may not be as user-friendly as advertised, limiting its usefulness for taxpayers. On its website, Tyler Technologies states that "this tool will help answer frequently asked questions so ( government officials) don't have to."

If residents have difficulty manipulating the data, we hope the county will take steps to walk them through the process of using the program. Technology is just a tool -- not a solution -- to providing transparency and accountability to taxpayers. And if a resident just can't figure it out, they should continue to contact the county directly and gain the information through the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Only time will tell if the software is a success. But at this juncture, we're pleased to see the county doing more to help residents gain high-value information from its stacks of financial reports. It's not only good public relations, but good government.

"We already offer so much on our finance page for the public to view, but this new system is interactive, in one location, and there is more info that hasn't been available before," Joy Nelson, Beaufort County spokeswoman