Meet a Hero of 21st Century Local Government: Charlie Francis
Charlie Francis is the quintessential municipal finance guru. He recites debt-to-asset ratios off the top of his head, finds solace in Excel pivot tables, and is never more satisfied than when the books balance—down to the penny—at month’s end.
Francis is also informally known as an OpenGov “super user.” And one need only to look at the online budget transparency platform for the City of Sausalito—where Francis serves as Administrative Services Director and Treasurer—to understand why. With eight reports spanning twenty three years of budget data, citizens, councilmembers, and government accounting students alike marvel at its beauty.
Users can view historical budget trends going back to 2002, or look forward into the city’s budget projections through 2026. They can track all financial transaction made by the city since 2002, and can see the city’s 2015-2016 proposed budget. We recently spoke to Francis about why he chose OpenGov and how he uses it as a transparency and management tool. Here’s what he had to say.
OG: How did you learn about OpenGov?
CF: I learned about OpenGov in 2012 through one of its partners. As soon as I saw the demo, I fell in love.
OG: Why, exactly, was the platform so compelling?
CF: I had been looking for OpenGov since at least 2009. I had just come to Sausalito as a new finance director and the recession was setting in. Cities were opening up their labor agreements, implementing furloughs, and cutting pay and benefits, all very serious stuff.
Some city council members were saying we should cut back our spending because all of our surrounding cities were doing so. I thought, that’s not a really good reason; we have the financial resources to last through the recession. Even though the general fund was declining, we had stored away several special revenue funds. We could actually use them to carry out our own economic stimulus program. But the response I always got was “show me.”
OG: So, in the absence of a tool like OpenGov, what did you do?
CF: I had to do it all myself. I built my own excel models based on exports from my enterprise system (Springbrook). I wanted to be able to put it up on my website and drill down in the numbers to validate what I was saying, but it was impossible to build everything I wanted to by myself. I couldn’t put it on our website, much less make it interactive and easy to use.
OG: How has having OpenGov helped with Council and citizen communications?
CF: To answer that, I’ll rewind again to 2009. At that time, I saw that expenses were growing faster than the rate of revenues and I forecasted an inflection point in 2012 when the city would be in trouble. I saw that our fire department expenses were driving the increase, outpacing inflation and revenue growth. I knew we couldn’t wait until 2012 to address it.
Long story short, we took action based on the projections, and negotiated with our fire department’s employee union and with the neighboring fire district to annex the department. We were able to come to an agreement to annex the department by 2012. Fast forward now to 2012, and that’s exactly what we did. We were able to reign in costs and reverse the trend. By that time, I had OpenGov and I could show very clearly to the public, using the platform, how that decision put the city’s finances back on a sustainable path. Ultimately, that helped me build trust with the public and show that we were doing the right things.
OG: What other policy decisions has OpenGov helped you communicate to the public?
CF: Around the time Sausalito adopted OpenGov in 2012, there was a contentious debate about how to secure revenue to fund some new capital projects that were very popular among residents. Some members of city council and I were advocating for a half cent sales tax increase to pay for the improvements, which I knew from polling data that the majority of citizens would support. However, a small but very vocal group of citizens came out against the tax increase.
I used OpenGov to show exactly how the revenues would be used and that we weren’t going to use it for pensions or operating expenses. It was money that would be devoted to capital projects. In the end, the ballot measure passed by 63 percent of the vote. I think it did so in part because we could clearly illustrate exactly where the money would be going.
OG: It sounds like you use OpenGov for much more than financial transparency.
CF: My initial reason for buying OpenGov was for transparency. I had no idea or expectations that this could be a management or reporting tool but it has certainly become an indispensable management resource.
OG: Does OpenGov complement your ERP system?
CF: Yes, definitely. The process of uploading data from Springbrook, my accounting system, to OpenGov is really fast. I download the data, and, in seven clicks, the data is up on OpenGov.
OG: How do you use your platform as a management tool?
CF: Well, a good example is about a year ago, I got a call from a very influential citizen in the community. I was on my way to a meeting when I picked up my phone. ‘Hi Charlie,’ he said, ‘I’d really like to get a look at Parking Lot 1 revenues.’
What normally would have happened is that I would have had to go back to my office after the meeting and pull that information. It would have taken me several hours. Instead I said, ‘Hi Bob, go to sausalitoca.opengov.com, on the top left, select Revenue, and then below that click on Revenue Type.’ In three clicks he could see all the revenue from Parking Lot 1. Now, he never needs to call me because it’s faster to just look at OpenGov.
Likewise, in managing the City’s finances, I have information at my fingertips to slice, dice and analyze multi-perspectively to provide factual and verifiable recommendations.
OG: What’s the most common reason you need to consult OpenGov?
CF: Sometimes I’ll get asked five minutes before a council meeting a bunch of questions like, how much are pension expenses for the city as percent of total expenses? How much is spent on compensation, normalized for abnormal expenses? In 5 clicks, I can have the raw data downloaded, hammer out the formula and email it to the whole council. It saves a tremendous amount of time.
OG: Has it changed the way you do reporting?
CF: Yes, I don’t do monthly-to-actual reports anymore. Instead, I send an email out to the community saying ‘go to the current-year view’ with a link to the site. OpenGov also saves the city money on printing budgets and financial statements. Overall, the tool allows me to focus more on adding value to information, rather than gathering the information itself.
OG: How does the city use the transaction report?
CF: A good example is when I got a call from the police chief recently who was drafting a memo to council and needed to know how much we spend on dispatch costs. I went into the transactions report, searched by vendor, and pulled up all of the transactions that had gone to the dispatch vendor, aggregated by fiscal year, for the past eleven years. Without OpenGov, it would have taken me hours to find and calculate that data.
Visit Sausalito’s budget platform at sausalitoca.opengov.com.
Category: Customer Story