The Municipality of Anchorage on Thursday launched its new online checkbook, a public tool that residents can use to find more detailed information about how the city is spending money.
“This milestone is the next step toward a vision of a local government dedicated to maximum transparency and accessibility, where public records — financial data, permitting records, etc. — are instantly accessible to anyone,” Assembly Chair Christopher Constant said in a Thursday statement about the new tool.
But the tool does not provide that sort of broad access to city permits, contracts or other specific documents, at least not yet.
In an interview Thursday, Constant said the online checkbook is in its first iteration. The city is aiming to expand the tool to provide more information and documents, he said.
The Anchorage Assembly in an ordinance last February required the city to establish the online tool in early 2024. Constant, along with members Daniel Volland, Kevin Cross and then-member and chair Suzanne LaFrance pushed for the legislation. Assembly leaders at the time said that they aimed improve transparency in public finances and open government.
Mayor Dave Bronson at the time expressed support for establishing such a tool but warned that the project would be complex.
Available information in the online checkbook dates back to 2018, the first year the city’s current financial and payroll software system, called SAP, was fully operating. The city in 2011 began the fraught and expensive transition to the SAP system.
The data in the online checkbook is currently limited to what comes directly out of the SAP system, Constant said.
So it provides information about city contracts, including to who or what organization the city issued the contract, the date and the cost, “but it doesn’t actually provide to you the contract,” he said.
The online checkbook allows for searches in a spreadsheet format of three main categories: revenue, non-payroll expenditures, payroll expenditures. The tool also includes payroll summaries for each year.
Under the revenue tab, residents can see specific transactions of money paid to the city by outside organizations or individuals. So, for example, the checkbook shows transactions paid to the city’s Development Services Department for construction and right-of-way permits.
The non-payroll expenditure category shows how much money the city spent to purchase goods or pay for services and work done by an individual, business or other organization, often under a contract. This category also shows grants paid out to organizations, including money from the city’s alcohol tax revenue that goes to local nonprofits.
The tool is searchable. For example, residents can search for a business name and find out if the city has paid the business or received money from it.
For revenue and non-payroll expenditures, the tool shows the month, year, amount paid, the specific city fund the money was paid from or paid into, and what department, agency or branch of city government made the transaction.
It’s not easy to see exactly which department or city agency is paying or receiving money, because the spreadsheet uses a “business area” category rather than breaking the transactions down by department, agency or division. So while some branches of city government are specified, like the fire and police departments, other branches are lumped together under a broader description, like “general government.”
That means that a person looking for transactions made just by the mayor’s office or law department — both part of “general government” — it’s not possible to break the data down that way.
Also, the payroll expenditures do not show pay information for individual employees, but rather show a complex array of labor-related transactions made each year under the different “business areas.”
“It‘s a great product and I’m grateful for all the work that all the folks did to get it here. But again, it’s just the beginning. We have to we have to figure out a way how to make available to the public the actual signed contracts, the terms,” Constant said.