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Washougal, Washington is a tight-knit community situated along the Columbia River, roughly 25 miles from Portland, Oregon. Residents enjoy the city’s small town charm, proximity to Mount Hood, and other natural treasures within the Columbia River Gorge.
In early 2013, Washougal city leaders adopted a new strategic plan that aimed to improve communication and foster greater participation among the town’s nearly 15,000 residents. After a decade of double-digit growth brought an influx of new residents, the city’s newly-minted strategic plan aimed, in part, to maintain the town’s sense of community and preserve its “small town feel.”
According to Washougal Lead Accountant Meagan Morris, achieving greater financial transparency was central to the city’s communication efforts. “We’re government, we’re by the people and for the people, so we wanted to be as transparent as possible with the city’s finances,” she explained.
Washougal leaders improved leverage the cloud-based OpenGov platform and other solutions to improve communications within and around its local government.
The city’s OpenGov platform helped finance team articulate challenges and revenue plans for a utility rate increases, strengthening trust in the government’s actions.
Washougal’s finance staff saved time preparing reports and the annual budget.
Visualizing financial data using the OpenGov platform helped the city’s finance team better inform management decisions and show department heads how their budgets have changed year to year.
The city also needed to address growing resistance to a planned utility rate increase. A few years prior, the phased in increase was approved to cover expenses associated with state-mandated improvements to the city’s water and sewer systems. “We wanted to be very transparent about how these funds were used,” Morris explained. “We’re not a for-profit, and we need to demonstrate to citizens that this isn’t about generating a surplus. We needed to show that the rate increases were used only to cover the cost of infrastructure improvements.”
The city received public complaints that the city was using the rate increases to fund other, unrelated capital projects. In response, Morris and her boss, Finance Director Jennifer Forsberg, set out to demonstrate how utility revenue was being collected and spent, and to clear up misconceptions.
Morris and Forsberg, along with other directors in the city, researched transparency best practices and identified a suite of tools that together would allow residents to access their utility accounts online, submit anonymous requests for repairs throughout the city, and bring the city’s finances online for all to see in an easy-to-understand format.
Morris learned about the OpenGov Smart Government Cloud through a recommendation from nearby Othello, Washington’s finance director. “I watched the OpenGov tutorial, stopped halfway through, and went into my boss’s office to show it to her. When she saw it, she was immediately on board,” Morris explained.
After getting the city administrator’s sign-off, Morris brought Washougal’s finances online in a user-friendly format, powered by OpenGov. “It was such an easy implementation to do,” Morris said. “I didn’t need IT’s help to build the site,” Morris added. She estimated it took just six hours, start to finish, for her to complete the initial data uploads to the OpenGov platform.
Using the OpenGov platform’s features started improving the community’s understanding of how the city was using the revenue from the utility rate increase. “The filter has been a fabulous tool. It puts our financial data into a format that people can see and interact with,” Morris explained. “Having the pie charts and stackable graphs has been so helpful in communicating how money in each fund can or can’t be used,” she added. “Citizens can now explore the budget as much as they want, and they can really dig into very specific revenues and expenses.”
Unlike high-level summary reports, which are usually intended for financial analysts or bond raters who don’t need a lot of detail, the new financial platform also presents transaction-level data in an accessible, well-organized format. “It’s so helpful to be able to show the specifics, such as how much a particular project costs, or where a particular revenue stream comes from, or how much a specific item costs,” added Morris.
The OpenGov platform has also proved to be a useful tool for presenting and reporting the budget. “I just finished our budget submittal and used the graphics tool quite a bit, which saved me a lot of time making charts and graphs for the report,” Morris added.
“It’s so helpful to be able to show the specifics, such as how much a particular project costs.”
Meagan Morris, Lead Accountant, Washougal, WA
Washougal’s finance team has also used the portal to inform key management decisions and show other department heads how their budgets have changed year to year. “I’ve used it to show managers, for example, how their spending on professional services compares to salaries,” Morris explained.
Morris and Forsberg further envisioned using the OpenGov to use it to present quarterly financial reports to the council. “I think this will really enhance our reports to council and will save us time preparing for them,” said Morris, who also trained the city staff on how to use the platform. “The feedback was excellent,” she noted.
“Citizens can now explore our budget as much as they want.”
Meagan Morris, Lead Accountant, Washougal, WA
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