Affordable Accountability

At the end of July voters in the Atlanta region sent an clear message when 63 percent voted against the city’s tax-to-fund transportation proposal (in Georgia these measures are called SPLOST – Special Purpose Local Sales Option, this transportation specific instance is called T-SPLOST).

I was particularly concerned about the vote for a few reasons: First, I spent 25 years in Georgia, many in Atlanta and care a great deal about the region. Secondly, this year, as a Code for America fellow I am working with the city Macon, Ga. (coincidentally the region of Georgia I was born and raised) on a project for their recently passed SPLOST referendum.

Having campaigned successfully for approval of the referendum, the City of Macon wants to hold itself accountable to voters by being transparent and open about the funds and status of projects within the SPLOST.

These tax referendums are not unique to Georgia, in fact, in the light of dangerously low city-budgets (some of which result even in city bankruptcies), this method is one of the few remaining ways for a city get enough funds to simply maintain itself, not to mention prepare itself for a better, more populated and sustainable future.

The vote in Atlanta leaves the region with little other resources to improve its situation and practically guarantees she will retain her oft held titles of worst commute and worst public transit.

What happened?

How could a region so desperate for these changes vote so strongly against them? It seems suburban voters thought projects were to be focused downtown, inner city voters thought projects were going to be outside of the city. And overwhelmingly, voters in Atlanta said they didn’t trust the government with their money. Many who do want better transportation in the region still voted against the measure because they just didn’t believe the government would pull it off.

Atlanta and her counties have long been divided against each other and over transit but the the real reason for the referendum’s failure comes down to communication. Despite an $8 million budget for education and outreach voters still didn’t know what the measure would do, where it would do those things or that their government would be accountable for holding up its end of the deal. So now Atlanta remains in gird-lock, pun intended.

What can be done?

Working mock-up of the SPLOST webpage at:

The government should be accountable and transparent in these measures. Residents should know exactly where their money is going – but the city doesn’t need to spend a lot of time or money to this end. There are tools and services for free or nearly so that require minimal technical skills and maintenance. The power of the web isn’t expensive or too complicated as many city governments seem to believe – actually, this is what Code for America exists to prove.

It is also my goal with the website I am creating for Macon’s successful 2012 SPLOST. Built on WordPress the cost of the site is minimal and the CMS is easy to use. The raw data of the funds and scheduling of projects is maintained in a public spreadsheet through (free) Google Docs. I made a javascript library mashup that combines (free) libraries such as tabletop.js, mustache.js, raphael.js and leaflet.js which take the spreadsheet data and transform it into descriptive and informative maps, tables and charts. This means the entire website and generated graphics can be maintained by the people who actually work on this project without needing to rely on already over-taxed IT departments.

Over the course of this SPLOST, which captures tax revenue for the next six years, Macon will gain an estimated $190 million to fund projects that include much needed improvements to cultural centers, infrastructure and debt retirement. Residents will be able to go online to learn and locate each project, its funding and any SPLOST related updates. The staff at City Hall who have already worked hard in preparing the measure, its budget and operation will be able to easily make changes and updates as needed to the site that will require little, if any, major structural maintenance or cost.

The project is of course open source and you can follow it on github or follow this blog for updates about its official launch.

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