Series Kickoff: the 2022 Municipal Budget

The Jersey City municipal budget was introduced last week (June 15th) via resolution 22-4009. For the past three years, I've dug into the municipal budget to better understand it. I write about it and share insights and analysis as I proceed; this year will be the fourth cycle and this year I'm adding some live teach-ins to the mix. My first teach-in is June 27th at 7pm at Saint Peter's University. My main focus on June 27th will be the "user friendly budget."

For now, I wanted to focus on the other budget document - the standard budget that is introduced via resolution at the start of each budget cycle. A few upfront notes about the budget document and my role in unpacking it:

1-I'm not a municipal employee thus cannot answer for the content in the budget. What I'm attempting to do here is simply visualize the budget in interesting ways to make this data more accessible to the average taxpayer.

For specific questions about the budget, taxpayers should engage the mayor and city council. The mayor and his administration draft the budget and the city council is charged with approving it after holding public hearings that you can read more about here. If you have questions around the hearings or budget timeline, I suggest reaching out to your local councilperson for details.

2-I am a taxpayer in Jersey City with a strong personal interest in the budget as it points to the municipal priorities that we all help fund.

3-I am an accounting professor at Saint Peter's University and my research interest is municipal finance. So, this budget interests me professionally, too.

4-I will repeat what I've stated in prior years on this site: this budget is a community document and we all collectively contribute to it. Every taxpayer in Jersey City should feel some agency with respect to this budget. We all intersect with a local budget through both our property tax but also through the services that the budget funds. So, the degree to which we engage this document is ultimately up to us as a community; that said, taxpayers must be provided reasonable entry points into the data to understand what it's saying. My series each year represent my attempt to make this data more accessible to the average taxpayer so that those entry points are wider and more numerous.

My Process for Visualizing the Budget

In this series, I'm going to be focusing on two budget documents: (a) the 2022 budget introduced via Resolution 22-409 on June 15th and (b) User Friendly Budget data over the period of 2015-2021.

The first budget document - the 2022 budget introduced last week - required that I go through some steps to get it into a format for visualizing on CivicParent. Here's a quick summary of those steps.

  1. I downloaded the introduced budget in PDF format. I then converted it from PDF to Excel, then used Tableau to visualize it.
  2. I tied out all balances to map my Tableau balances to the budget document. You can see that tie-out below.

3-I included source data references, where appropriate, to enable a reader/user of this series to tie my Tableau visualizations back to official budget documents. For example, I added a "Sheet" reference to each record in my Tableau dataset so that a taxpayer can refer back to the specific sheet in the 2022 budget document containing that balance. The example below shows expense from the "Office of the Mayor" which is included on "Sheet 12" of the official budget document. I have two objectives with this: (a) I encourage taxpayers to learn the public documents; they are *our* documents as a community and (b) I want readers to have the opportunity to pressure-test where my visuals are coming from, i.e. to be able to trace back to the source.

The budget document

Tableau Visualization

4-I'm adding new fields to provide greater context on a per-record basis; the objective is more nuanced insight and analysis versus prior years. I credit a team I worked with in Montclair with some of this additive nuance that I'm included in this year's Jersey City series.

For instance, one major observation we can make about the city budget is that a majority of expense is people-related, i.e. salaries and benefits. The standard budget file does not make this fact obvious, since "Salaries" line items are sprinkled throughout departmental expense and then employee health insurance and retirement costs are bucketed in other areas of the budget (a note: this people cost is much more evident in the "User Friendly Budget" which I wrote about more extensively in my 2020 budget series).

So to make this all-in people cost more understandable, I tagged any "salaries," "retirement," or "group employee health insurance" related records as "Salaries & Benefits" so that I could visualize a view of "people cost." The standard budget file does not provide this summarized view, but that doesn't stop us from making it ourselves. The detail for any summary view will be provided if taxpayers are interested in digging into the detailed data.

Final thoughts

If you have feedback, have questions, or see an issue with a visualization, I welcome feedback and dialog. I can be reached at brigid@dsouza.cpa.

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