The “User Friendly Budget”, Part 2: What’s in the User Friendly Budget?

This is part of a series about the User Friendly Budget. 

This is a relatively short post to lay out what’s in the User Friendly Budget. I also want to share some of how I think this file can be used by taxpayers and advocates.

As I explained in the first post in this series, the UFB is a file you can access either on your town’s website or through the NJ Department of Community Affairs.  Once you have the file downloaded, you can begin to explore its contents. Here is an outline of what you’ll find. Please note that I’m assuming a certain level of proficiency with Excel or Google Sheets – however, if you’re unfamiliar with either of these platforms, please feel free to drop me a line at [email protected]. I use these tools throughout my instruction at Saint Peter’s University and I’m happy to share tips, advice, and tools you can use to ramp up your proficiency with spreadsheets. Alternatively, you can wait for the Tableau visualizations I’ll be sharing throughout this series.

What’s in the User Friendly Budget?

The User Friendly Budget contains 14 areas of data (in spreadsheet parlance, each of these is a separate “tab” in the User Friendly Budget file):

  1. Cover Page – basic profile of the municipality including municipal ID and name, website, and elected officials’ names.
  2. UFB-1 Tax Impact – a breakout of the tax levies, tax rates, and related information. Two years of data are provided.
  3. UFB-2 Revenue Summary –  a summary of how the local government obtains its money. This is a good view into the *structural* nature of how your town funds itself.
  4. UFB-3 Appropriations Summary – a summary of how the local government spends its money ie what buckets of resources get the most dollars?
  5. UFB-4 Structural Imbalances – non-recurring revenues or expenses (another way to put it: one-time items that may be included in the current year budget but may not appear in future years).
  6. UFB-5 Tax Assessments – tax base details, including equalization ratios and a summary of abatement data.
  7. UFB-6 Tax Abatements – detailed listing of tax abatement data. [A note: I’ve used this tab from prior years’ UFB from Jersey City as part of the dataset for mapping abatements in Jersey City. You can view one of those maps here.]
  8. UFB-7 Personnel Costs – a breakdown of personnel costs by department. Base pay, overtime, pension & health, and employment tax details are provided.
  9. UFB-8 Health Benefits – current and prior year health benefit costs for active employees, elected officials and retirees, along with the extent of employee cost sharing contributions.
  10. UFB-9 Accum. Absence Liability – accumulated absences and related dollar cost of those absences, by department.
  11. UFB-10 Debt – debt obligations for current and future budget years.
  12. UFB-11 Shared Services – shared service agreements the city has with other entities (eg Jersey City has a shared services agreement for waste management with the Jersey City Board of Education).
  13. UFB-12 Auth. & Fire Dist. – which authorities and/or fire districts, if any, serve the municipality
  14. Notes – a space for explanatory notes.

I should note that I plan on writing separate, independent posts about these different buckets of information. In some cases I will use a specific municipality or handful of municipalities as case studies. I’ll be learning some of this as I go, and invite others to learn with me. I believe every taxpayer can and should have access to our public data, and understand what the data means — I also believe that understanding is fully realized only through community dialog and debate.

Budgets are community documents but they will only reflect community’s priorities if we are all invited to help shape them.

Further reading about the User Friendly Budget

Much to come in this series, but for now: a very helpful initial document at the outset is the “Instructions for Completion and Electronic Submission of Municipal User-Friendly Budget” — this is the user guide for municipal authorities who must complete the User Friendly Budget.  As taxpayers, we can “look over the shoulders” of these municipal authorities and glean insight into the data they are compiling on our collective behalf.

A look ahead: we’ll be diving into a statewide dataset!

One final note: I’ve compiled all 565 municipal user friendly budgets and this series will explore both municipal-specific and statewide trends and analysis. I will be sharing interactive Tableau visualizations and my datasets via Google Sheet to help encourage and broaden the discussion and share the power of discovery and insight with anyone reading this. My hope is to learn, and I invite you to learn with me.

Up next…

In my next post (#3 in this series), I’ll share my first visualization which will look at the 3rd tab in the UFB, the “UFB-3 Appropriations Summary.”  I’ll take a look at examples of “structural” expense and use Jersey City as a case study to begin to explore the data and how we can use it. Stay tuned!

Have questions? Email me at [email protected]



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