Fort Bend County earned Platinum Leadership Circle status for taking a proactive approach to financial transparency.
Currently, the county's Financial Transparency Report contains comprehensive annual financial reports dating back to 2001, budgets from 2011 forward and check registers since 2012. New check register reports are added weekly after the commissioners' court approves expenditures and checks are issued. These documents are placed online by in-house staff without using specialized software. All documents are converted into PDF files allowing easy public access at minimal expense.
At the outset, county officials decided which documents would be most useful to the public, then determined how to prepare them for online posting. The commissioners court provided input on what it wanted in the disbursement report (check register), including a short description of each payment and year-to-date vendor totals, which were incorporated into the report.
According to Pamela Gubbels, director of finance and investments, important transparency steps to consider include but are not limited to:
- Involving all the correct people/departments;
- Seeking approval from the governing body (i.e., commissioners court);
- Ensuring all data being released is subject to open records guidelines (i.e., no protected personal data is disclosed);
- Making sure the reports are easy to locate and understand;
- Maintaining reports for multiple years/cycles, as much as is practicable; and
- Posting current reports as soon as is feasible.
Rather than being an added expense, having these documents online has saved the county money by reducing printing costs.
“Over the past few years we have found that including more information online makes it more accessible to the community, granting agencies and other interested parties to view without having to send a hard copy of information,” said Amy Hartman of the county Auditor's Office. She added that the county is in the process of including all financial statements online, not just the annual statement.
The best thing about the project, Gubbels says, is that “financial transparency allows taxpayers to see how their tax dollars are being used.”