Five years ago, New Jersey began mandating that every municipality* in New Jersey file a “User Friendly Budget (UFB)” as part of the annual budgeting process. This file is “user friendly” for a few reasons:
- The data is aggregated in unique ways that help us see the structural nature of how the city both collects and spends money.
- The data contains details that are not available in other budget files. Examples include full- and part-time employee counts by budget area, aggregated component costs for city employees (eg healthcare and pension costs), and abatement details such as project name and related PILOT (“payment in lieu of tax”) billings.
- The files are published in Microsoft Excel, allowing for relatively easy access to the data for civic analysis.
Why I’m writing this series
I am writing this series for a few reasons.
First, I want to learn more about this file. I am struck (and disappointed) by how little this budget file is being used by government entities – at the state and local levels – to help inform the public about local, public finance. The file itself contains a wealth of data. Rather than sit on this, I decided to write about it and teach myself and share as I go. I believe that municipal and state governments can, and should, be publishing dashboards containing this data to help taxpayers understand local finance. I’ll share some ideas on what that can look like as part of this series.
Second, this is part of a larger effort on my part to build a free web-based Property Tax Tutorial series based in video, online articles, and interactive Tableau visualizations (more to come on that later).
And third, I see renewed attention on the city budget due to both the pandemic and concerns around public safety and criminal justice. I believe any systemic change requires an informed, and community-based, understanding of the budget. My hope is that this series can help support that discussion and be a resource for advocates, regardless of your point of view.
Here’s a quick overview of how to access your town’s UFB file:
1-Your municipality’s User Friendly Budget should be published along with the other budget documents on your town’s website. I’ll leave you to find that on your own, depending on what municipality you live in.
2-If you cannot find it on your city website, you can find it on the NJ Department of Community Affairs website here. The list is in alphabetical order by municipality name.
2a-How to download the file from the state website (it takes a few clicks, but is easy enough). Access the website below here.
3-Finally, how to work within this Spreadsheet file. If you’re familiar with spreadsheets, you’ll likely have a sense of next steps but if not, please note: the User Friendly Budget is is a “macro enabled” Microsoft Excel file, and so you need Excel to open and work with this data. The only “macro enabled” feature in the file appears to be the drop-down box on the Cover Page. You will be asked if you want to update links and enable macros upon opening the file; I typically respond “no” to each of those questions.
If you do not have Excel (a paid program that is part of the Microsoft Office software suite), you can upload the User Friendly Budget file to Google Drive and work with it in Google Drive. Here’s a quick tutorial about how to do that:
My next post in this series will look at what is contained within the User Friendly Budget i.e. a table-of-contents breakdown of the spreadsheets (the ‘tabs’) and the data contained within them.
Have questions? Email me at [email protected].
*Municipality is an all-encompassing term for town, city, borough, village, etc.