Interactive budget tool gives citizens more information on what taxes support

The city finance office has created interactive budget tools to help the public see where their tax dollars go.

Kirsten Myre, city budget analyst, found a software system and entered all of the city’s data to develop the interactive, colorful tools.

[USE THE BUDGET TOOLS]

The hope, Myre said, is that the tools will get the public more engaged and educated about the budget process.

On Tuesday, Myre and Melissa Kinzler, city finance director, walked City Commissioners through the new tools.

As of Tuesday night, the tools only work in Chrome, but staff said they’re trying to address that internet browser issue.

Using the tax receipt tool, taxpayers can enter their market value as determined by the Montana Department of Revenue to see how their tax dollars support city services. The receipt tool only includes property taxes and doesn’t currently include assessments such as the streets assessment, park district, or county or schools taxes.

“We hope this is an educational tool,” Myre said.

Kinzler said the tool is meant to show a high level snapshot, but they can modify the tools and add details.

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In the tax receipt, Mansfield Theater and Convention Center events are included in the park and recreation section since a small amount comes from the general fund, Myre and Kinzler said.

The online budget simulator uses the adopted budget for fiscal year 2019, which is the current budget for the city and runs July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2019.

Myre and Kinzler said they’ll be able to input the data for the proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 once its developed.

The budget simulator is an interactive tool and Myre said the idea is to offer a simplistic view of the budget, which can be complicated.

Users can make changes to the budget and submit their suggestions and comments through the online tool. Users can increase or decrease spending in the different categories and funds to see how it would impact the overall budget.

The tool breaks out revenues and expenditures and allows users to drill down for more details in each category. On the expenditure side, Myre said they kept it at the fund level to make it realistic since, for example, water funds can be used to support public safety.

To keep some validity in the tool, Myre said they built in restrictions like the state mandated property tax caps.

Users can submit their suggestions, comments or budget priorities through the tool to the city finance staff. Myre said they can use that feedback in developing the city budget.

The revenue side include information buttons so users can learn more about types of taxes, assessments and other revenue sources. The assessments also include a history of increases.

The tax increment districts are included with definitions of what the TIFs are and maps of those districts.

On the spending side, the tool included staffing levels for various funds with three-year trends.

The tool includes a number of graphs since, “we tried to make this as visually comprehensible as possible,” Myre said.

The software they used, Balancing Act, is a national company that many other cities use, but Myre said no other Montana cities were using the public engagement tools yet.

Mayor Bob Kelly suggested that the city hold an event when residents can bring their computers and walk through the tools with city budget staff.

Commissioner Mary Moe said, “I’m just loving it.”