This is a post in a series about NJ's User Friendly Budget. My intent is to share basic analysis and insights with community as a way to encourage taxpayers to engage with this document and learn more about local public finance. Read the other posts in this series here including how to access your town's UFB and the UFB's table of contents.
In this post, we'll use the User Friendly Budget to gain insight into the basic question of: "What does my town or city spend money on?" and "What is the biggest driver of expense in my town?" The "UFB-3" tab in your town's User Friendly Budget can help you understand these questions, and create basic visuals like this one:
By the way - a note on the chart above. You can interact with the chart - explore the counties and municipalities using the drop-down box filters. You can also re-sort the X-axis (to show bars in descending order of dollars) -- check out the quick tutorial below on how to do that:
Ok - let's dig in and learn a bit about the chart above; where the data comes from, what those categories mean, and how we can source all of this back to our own town's budget to better understand our local financial paradigm.
I want to begin with a recap on why this budget is so useful, and worth the investment to dig into and explore; this is important context for the actual data.
What's So Special About this Budget?
One benefit of the User Friendly Budget is that the data is aggregated in unique ways that help us see the structural nature of how the municipality both collects and spends money.
A city budget should always merit maximum scrutiny and detail, but taxpayers often are not invited into the process in meaningful ways that seek maximum input.
What we are seeing now, in the midst of both a pandemic and a public debate about public safety dollars, is taxpayers forcing themselves into the conversation about the city budget. In my view, this is a healthy, vigorous exercise of civic sector muscle.
Should your city's budget change? Should it stay the same? That's a community question and as such, community should help answer it.
Influencing the Shape of a Public Budget
Influencing the shape of a budget requires many factors - but one I'll highlight here is that we must understand the budget's structure.
Any structure - be it a wood-frame house or a city budget - requires components to hold the structure up -- and some of those components are more easily moved than others. For instance, a support beam in the middle of a house is not easy to move, but planks acting as a guardrail on the back deck perhaps are. Each of these components is ultimately moveable -- but one component (the support beam) will require a larger scope of teamwork and effort and a longer timeline to, in the end, move than, say, a guardrail on the back deck. In a budget, some areas of revenue and expense are like the support beams - harder to change - and other areas of revenue of expense are like the guardrails on the back deck - easier to change.
Gleaning Insight into the Structure of Our Municipal Budgets
The third tab of the User Friendly Budget - "UFB3 - Appropriations Summary" - helps us see and understand the structure of our city's budget from the expense side of the budget. I'm starting with expenses because they directly inform us about the services that we, the taxpayers, pay for. So it's a logical entry point into this series.
A few upfront caveats about the "UFB-3 Appropriations Summary" tab:
- This is a *summary* view...and other tabs in the UFB file provide related nuance and detail (which is one reason why this is a series -- I want to dive into both the summary and the related detail).
- Since the User Friendly Budget is a standardized document used by every town and city in NJ, we can compare and contrast a town's expense structure with the expense structure of other towns and cities throughout the state (that's what post "4b" in this series will look at).
- And I would be remiss not to point out that context abounds. A larger city like Jersey City (where I live) will have a larger budget in terms of overall dollars, with perhaps a different allocation of dollars to different buckets of expense, than a smaller suburb like Florham Park (where I grew up). I encourage you to dig into data for towns you're familiar with as a way to connect the budget data - which can seem abstract - with your own concrete experiences and observations.
Tracing the Source File to the Visualization
A major goal of this series is to help ease the process for taxpayers interacting with the raw data contained in source documents. But, we must understand the raw data as a starting point. Shown below is a callout of a User Friendly Budget, Tab "UFB3 - Appropriations Summary" from Morristown, NJ. I've boxed in red, blue, and green the columns of data I'm using in the visualizations below the picture.
The example shown is Morristown, in Morris County:
And here is the same data, in an interactive format, via Tableau - check out YOUR town!
(note: the data in the RED and GREEN boxes from above ar included in the visualization below):
What do the appropriations (aka expense) categories mean?
The 23 categories of spending (aka appropriations aka expense) have specific meaning, per the state's instruction manual (the manual, as a I mentioned in my previous post, is aimed at municipal authorities but we can read it too).
The structure is a list of 23 expense categories. Each expense category as a corresponding number next to it; the numbers come from an accounting indexing system published by the state.
- 20-General Government: includes Elected Officials, Clerk, Business Administrator, Financial Administration, Technology, Legal, Economic Development and municipal office employees not included in other listed budget categories
- 21-Land Use Administration: includes the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Adjustment, and Affordable Housing.
- 22-Uniform Construction Code Enforcement: includes the budget for all building sub-code officials who enforce the Uniform Construction Code, as well as other code enforcement functions outside the scope of the UCC.
- 23-Insurance: includes Employee Health Benefits (medical, dental, prescription health coverage and other health-related benefits), Liability, Property Casualty, Workers Compensation and any other insurance costs.
- 25-Public Safety: includes 911 Communications, Police, Fire, Ambulance/Rescue, Emergency Management and any other public safety costs.
- 26-Public Works: includes Street and Road Maintenance, Sanitary Sewer Services, Stormwater Management, Solid Waste, Recycling, Vehicle Maintenance and other miscellaneous public works functions.
- 27-Health & Human Services: includes Animal Control, Board of Health and various health, human services and social services programs provided by your municipality for veterans, senior citizens, teens or other groups.
- 28-Parks and Recreation: includes park maintenance, administration of recreation programs and community centers, as well as special community events/celebrations and other similar functions.
- 29-Education: includes Library and other similar educational functions.
- 31-Utilities & Bulk Purchases: includes all utility costs paid through the municipal budget - gas, electric, water, sewer, etc.
- 32-Landfill and Solid Waste: includes all costs relating to landfill and solid waste disposal.
- 36-Statutory Expenses: includes Pension, Social Security, Unemployment, and other related payroll taxes.
Other categories include:
- 43-Court and Public Defender
- 42-Shared Services
- 46-Deferred Charges
- 48-Debt-Type 1 School District
- 50-Reserve for Uncollected Taxes
- 55-Surplus General Budget
If you have a particular interest - let that guide you. A budget is a complex intertwining of facts, numbers, and nuanced context. Asking a question can be like pulling a a single thread from a complex pattern of fabric; the complexity can - and will - start to untangle. Each question is a tug on the thread, an undoing of a knot.
How you can follow the public money
If you haven't already, download a copy of your town's User Friendly Budget at the NJ Department of Community Affairs website (if you need steps on how to navigate the state's website, I shared a quick video tutorial in this post).
Best ways to view this data
Generally speaking, this visualization is best viewed in a desktop browser, however mobile views are also available.
This is the same visualization as further up in this post. You can view it above or click on the image to go to the desktop / tablet visualization and interact with the data:
Fine print about the source data:
- All User Friendly Budgets are available from the NJ Department of Community affairs website here.
- I downloaded all available User Friendly Budgets from the NJ DCA website and then used a VBA script to compile select data from each file for analysis. Read more about the this process in my previous post, "The “User Friendly Budget”, Part 3: Understanding the Source Data & How the Statewide Dataset was Compiled"
- You can view my dataset, and learn more about how this data was compiled, in Google Sheets here.
- While I have reviewed this data thoroughly and done my best to squeeze out all errors in the data compilation process, errors and omissions may occur on my end. My visualizations are intended to be a starting point, and it’s good practice (especially if you are an advocate) to trace your research back to your town’s source (original) file from your own website (look in the list above if you don’t know your town’s website) or the NJ Depart of Community Affairs website.
Check out the other posts in this series:
- The “User Friendly Budget”, Part 1: Intro to the Series & How to Access the UFB
- The “User Friendly Budget”, Part 2: What’s in the User Friendly Budget?
- The “User Friendly Budget”, Part 3: the “Cover Page”, an Inventory of NJ’s 565 Municipalities, & An Overview of How UFB Data was Compiled
In my next post, I'll take UFB-3 Appropriations Summary data and compare expense data across municipalities, so we can start to gain more insight into questions like "How does my town compare to other towns in its share of total budget dollars going to Public Safety? Health and Human Services? Debt service?"
Please keep in touch with questions if you have them at [email protected]