JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Mike Parson’s administration is preparing to launch a new feature on the state’s online payroll portal that could shed light on how cities and counties spend their tax dollars.
Under a 2021 law sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tem Jean WiemannR-O’Fallon, the state has added a local government feature to its searchable state spending database.
The site, called the Missouri Accountability Portalallows users to view state employee salaries, vendor payments, and contract information, as well as information about how federal COVID-19 pandemic relief funds are being distributed.
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For now, the local government database is empty as the state is rolling out a “soft launch” to verify the site’s operation.
Chris Moreland, a spokesman for the Office of Administration, which oversees the site, said a letter to local governments outlining the program has been drafted and is expected to be sent by the end of the month.
By law, municipalities and counties can voluntarily participate in the database starting Dec. 31.
But local governments could be required to participate if voters successfully approve a petition calling on officials to release the information.
“The database must include detailed information about the expenditures of a given municipality or county and the suppliers to whom payments have been made,” notes a summary of the law, “The database must be accessible to the public at no cost and have multiple ways to search and filter information.”
In addition to being available on the state website, a link to the database on a municipal or county website is required.
The legislation also authorizes the state to reimburse local governments for costs associated with complying with the law.
An earlier analysis of the legislation found that Columbia estimated it would cost $40,000 to collect and provide the information. O’Fallon estimated the cost at between $3,000 and $5,000, plus additional staff work to remove any confidential information from the records.
Wiemann, who has a limited term and will not return to the Legislative Assembly in 2023, has pushed for the law in several legislative sessions, saying it will increase transparency in local government.
But Richard Sheets, executive director of the Missouri Municipal League, which advocates for cities, said he doubts there will be high turnout.
While the measure was being negotiated, Sheets said he heard “grunts” from city officials. One question is whether a city’s payroll information will be compatible with the state’s format.
“That was our argument from the start,” Sheets said Friday.
While larger cities may be able to pass their information to the state, he said some smaller communities may have issues due to budget constraints.
Ultimately, he predicted that the database will be limited.
“I don’t think many cities will participate,” Sheets said.