How county governments spend taxpayer dollars is public information. But some Mississippians may hesitate to request that information. Maybe they don't know exactly what they're looking for or they don't want to fill out a Freedom of Information Act request. It could be they have business before the county and fear political retribution, or some folks don't want to bother the courthouse.

The Mississippi Center for Public Policy (MCPP) announced last week the opportunity for anyone to search through their county's spending records. They can browse online in the privacy of their own home without having to complete government forms or troubling anyone in the process.

The information available at SeeTheSpending.org can be searched and sorted by date, department, spending category, amount and recipient of the payment over the past six years.

"People are frustrated with the direction of government, and they feel helpless to do anything about it. This site gives people a way to do something about it at the local level, where they can make the most difference," said Forest Thigpen, president of MCPP. "This is the first time this information has ever been available online," he said.

Most Mississippi counties provided their data. The counties not yet cooperating include Calhoun, Chickasaw, Clarke, Humphreys, Itawamba, Jackson, Jasper, Jefferson, Kemper, Lafayette, Lee, Lowndes, Monroe, Newton, Oktibbeha, Perry, Union and Wayne. Hinds County - previously unresponsive - is now working with MCPP to move forward. The project costs the county nothing; MCPP pays all the costs.

This information joins searchable state level spending data unveiled by MCPP last year which spurred visitors at the web site to conduct more than 26,000 searches over the twelve months. In addition to spending data, the site also provides video archives of the 2010 and 2011 legislative sessions.

"Our goal is to be a one stop shop for people who want to see how their taxpayer dollars are spent at all levels of government," Thigpen said. He hopes citizens will form their own audit committees to hold local government accountable.

This will also be a useful tool for journalists. Layne Bruce, Executive Director of the Mississippi Press Association which represents more than 100 newspapers in the state said, "Our state newspapers, no matter their size, have always been able to pursue FOIA requests beyond the limits of their local budgets through a legal hotline operated by MPA and the MPA-supported MS Center for Freedom of Information. But this is certainly a convenient resource for journalists and the public alike. Anything that increases government transparency and allows taxpayers to better understand where their money is spent is a positive development."

Thigpen praised Madison County Chancery Clerk Arthur Johnston and Grenada County Chancery Clerk Johnny Hayward for being leaders among their peers. He said many clerks wondered about motives and designs, but Johnston and Hayward helped with their colleagues. "The fact that Arthur is a Republican and Johnny is a Democrat is just one bit of evidence that transparency is not a partisan issue," Thigpen said.

Madison County was the first county to provide the information and served as the "guinea pig" for the project.

"The Madison County Board of Supervisors unanimously and wholeheartedly approved our participation and I want to give each of those guys credit. I deeply appreciate them and the state is in their debt and I want to give them the credit they deserve," Johnston said. He continued, "This gives the public ready and easy access and it is a great tool for citizens to monitor what their government is doing. Now people can more easily know what government is spending their money on. I hope it gives people an opportunity to say 'hey, in my business I can offer this product or service cheaper' and it gives them a chance to compete and saves taxpayer dollars."

While browsing the data I noticed several counties tag donations to charitable organizations. I believe in giving to charities and do so myself. I don't support the government taxing me and giving my money to charities I don't choose.

Over the past five fiscal years Marion County has given $104,699 and Rankin County has given $109,500 in taxpayer money to charity. In six years Jones County has given $260,764.84 while Warren County distributed $1.5 million.

To be fair, sometimes a county may see economic development benefits in return for "charitable" contributions (to local a Chamber of Commerce for example), or a county may find it cost effective to fund a charity rather than government providing those services (in which case a contract might be more appropriate).

Is that contribution proper county spending? That is the beauty of this web site. It isn't making a judgment; it is just providing data. Citizens can now see the spending and ask their county government questions and hold it accountable.





Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms and follow him @CapstonePerry on Twitter.