Mississippians can now see the details of spending decisions made by 62 of the state's 82 counties on a website called SeeTheSpending.org.
"In essence, we are posting the counties' checkbook registers for the past six years," said Forest Thigpen, president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, the independent, non-profit think tank that created the site.
Thigpen said the information presented on the site has never been available to the public in a searchable format. Before now, citizens would have to request volumes of records and sift through them manually to get the kind of information available with the click of a mouse on SeeTheSpending.org.
Visitors to the site can search by the name of a payee, by county department, or by a category of spending. It does not, however, provide salary information for individual employees.
"People are frustrated with the direction of government, and they feel helpless to do anything about it," said Thigpen. "This site gives people a way to do something about it at the local level, where they can make the most difference."
"We hope there will be groups of people who join together to monitor the spending decisions of their local governments," Thigpen said. "If they do, we will be available to help them with training and other resources to enable them to accomplish their goals."
He said part of the mission of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy is "to equip the public with the information and perspective they need to defend their own liberty."
Although the tendency of people will be to look for frivolous ways taxes are being spent, Thigpen said this site "is not intended to be simply a 'gotcha' site." He said it provides a service to county supervisors, as they will be able to learn whether other counties provide core services at less cost. It also provides an opportunity for budget savings, as local merchants might offer lower bids for products or services than the county is currently paying.
The Center obtained the information for the site through a series of requests, known as public records requests, issued to county Chancery Clerks, who serve as the custodian of county spending records.
Not all counties have complied with the Center's requests for spending records. Hinds County has not responded in any way to the Center's request. Thigpen said the taxpayers of Hinds County should demand that their county officials release the data.
"We applaud the many Chancery Clerks who willingly complied with our requests, recognizing that the people's money is the people's business," Thigpen said. "But Hinds County has so far said to their residents, 'What we do with your money is none of your business.' I wonder what they are trying to hide."
Nineteen counties claim that they are unable to provide the information in the form requested by the Center. Thigpen says that in most cases, that seems to be an excuse for not complying, since the Center has offered to pay for the computer programming expenses necessary to provide the requested records. The Center has already paid those expenses for the counties that have complied.
SeeTheSpending.org was launched last year with state spending data available for searching. Future updates will include the addition of school district spending, state contracts, and other elements of state and local finances.