Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, February 2014

Municipal budgets can run to hundreds of pages in their printed versions, making for unwieldy reading. Residents with an interest in how their tax dollars are being spent may have trouble finding what they are looking for.

For more than a half-dozen years, Arlington has been providing an Excel spreadsheet that the public can view to get precise information about the town’s revenues and spending. But this past fall, the town took transparency to a deeper level with the introduction of the “Arlington Virtual Budget” (www.arlingtonvisualbudget.org), a website that illustrates how taxes are deployed and other budget data in visually striking fashion.

The website, developed with the help of the Arlington company Involution Studios, invites residents to type in the amount of property taxes they paid in a certain fiscal year and see how those dollars were deployed across a range of categories. For someone who paid $3,500 in taxes, for example, just under $1,350 were distributed to schools and roughly $800 to other town operations. Other notable categories include insurance ($420) and pensions ($215).

The section devoted to “Funds & Reserves” uses graphics to chart the decline and rise of Arlington’s free-cash fund over the past six years. Free cash, which dipped as low as $5 million in Arlington in fiscal 2011, is now around $20 million. The graphic projects that free cash will peak at around $23 million in fiscal 2015 before starting a gentle decline.

“We tried to paint a picture, both with the year-over-year comparisons and the average comparisons, to try to get people to look at it,” Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine said of the website.

Other sections using similar graphics are devoted to revenues and to expenses. Clicking on school funding, for example, will reveal several subcategories, such as instructional services programs, special education, and school operations and maintenance.

Chapdelaine said it took about eight months to get the website ready for public viewing. Once the site went live, in October, interest was significant. The site was promoted to residents through town notices and other conventional means, but social media, particularly LinkedIn and Twitter, spread the news far and wide.

“The most amazing part was the week or so after we launched it,” Chapdelaine said. “We got people looking at it literally all over the world. Europe, Asia. I think we had six hits in Germany alone.”

The site had been visited more than 1,900 times by early January, and the majority of page views came from people outside of Massachusetts.

For more information, contact Adam Chapdelaine at (781) 316-3010.