This lesson will show you how to access important township financial information. It specifically will focus on how to find Bills Lists (and Treasurer’s Reports) on the township website and how to analyze the data for useful insights. [View the Video below.]
As a resident, you may be interested to see exactly how you tax dollars are being spent, by whom, and who gets those dollars. The Bills List is a great way to find that information.
As always, the first step is to go to the homepage, which is www.newtownpa.gov.
The logical place to start is Finance Department page, which you can access via the DEPARTMENTS drop-down menu (see Figure 1 below).
There’s lots of interesting financial information here such as the approved and annual budgets, financial statements – which are yearly audits - and monthly treasurer’s reports, etc. These are high-level data, but not data about who gets paid for what. We’ll look at the Treasurer’s Report at the end of this lesson.
But there is no folder for Bills Lists!
OK, so here’s my first secret I have for finding the Bills Lists: You have to open the GOVERNMENT drop-down menu and roll your mouse pointer over “Boards and Committees” and then careful move the pointer over to the submenu and click on “Board of Supervisors.”
This will bring you to the Township Board of Supervisors page, which you may think is not the most likely place to find Bills Lists. Stay with me and we will find out why the Bills Lists are available from this page.
Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the screen below the pretty faces of the five supervisor guys and up will pop “Supervisor Meeting Minutes & Agendas” with a list of years (see Figure 2).
Suppose you are interested in seeing one or more Bills Lists approved by the BOS in 2021.
Although this list does not mention Bills Lists, if you click on the year 2021 you will see a “Bills List” folder along with folders for Agendas, Minutes, Treasurer Reports and Zoom Meetings! [View the video below.] These are all items that Supervisors might be interested in and so they are located on this page. That’s my guess anyway. If it were up to me, I would include the Bills List folder on the Finance Department page as well.
Anyway, let’s click on the Bills List folder to open it. Let's look at the Bills List for July 14, 2021, which is at the end of the list. [View the Video below.]
Note that all the Bills Lists are PDF documents. If you click on "07 July 14", you will see a preview of the July 14, 2021, Bills List.
SIDEBAR: The naming of files is very perculiar! "07 July 14" by itself would not let you know what this file is about. I only know it's the Bills List for July 14, 2021, because of the folder names it is stored in (i.e., 2021 Bills List). I have no idea what "07" means! It may have something to do with Google docs, which is used by the Township to store documents.
You can scroll down this preview and see every invoice that needs to be paid or was paid in this cycle (actually these are bills that were approved to be paid at the July 14, 2021, BOS meeting; that's why Bills Lists are found on the Supervisors page). For example, on page 1 you will see a bill for $1,213 from Bella Commercial Services for June Janitorial Services/Parks.
Up at the top of the screen you should see several options such as printing or sharing the document. You also can download the document. Let’s try that. [View the Video below.]
Click on the downward pointing arrow and voila! The document should open up on your computer if you have a PDF reader set up to automatically open PDF files when downloaded.
A Secret About PDF Files
There are two types of PDF documents: ones that are “searchable” and ones that are NOT. A searchable PDF file is a PDF file that includes text that can be searched using the standard Adobe Reader “search” function. In addition, the text can be selected and copied and pasted into other applications such an Excel spreadsheet.
Unfortunately, the Bills List PDF documents are NOT searchable. You call tell that by the shape of the cursor, which is a crosshair rather than a bracket.
Let me show you what that means if you try and search for information. [View the video below.] Say you want to find bills related to legal fees related to the proposed Wawa on the Bypass. Now, you don’t know if this Bills List includes any invoices for that so you logically would use the PDF reader’s search function to find any Wawa-related legal bills. Let’s try that.
Type Wawa into the search box and click on “Find Next in Current Document.” Whoops! “No matches found.” Oh, well, I guess there aren’t any such bills.
But wait! Even if you search for a word you know is in this document such as “Newtown” it says not found! That can’t be right. What’s going on?
In order to search for text in a PDF file, it must be a converted to a searchable PDF file. Because I have the proper software, I can convert this non-searchable/non-readable Bills List into a searchable/readable document by using the Adobe’s built-in OCR Text Recognition function.
[BTW, early on in my Supervisor career, I got the township to post only searchable Minutes of meetings show that residents can sift through these sometimes lengthy documents to find what they are looking for without the need to have and know how to use OCR Text Recognition software.]
Now that this is a searchable PDF, if we search for "Wawa" what we find is that there are two bills from KILKENNY LAW LLC related to WAWA, one posted in MAY21 for $1,764.00 and one posted in JUN21 for $2,254.00. [View the Video below.]
There is no information about what these bills are for. To learn that, you must request copies of the invoices. But I can tell you that these bills are for representing the township at the Zoning Hearing Board opposing Wawa’s requests for variances to the zoning. For more on that, listen to my audio clips from the July 8, 2021, ZHB meeting.
Let’s see what we can do with the KILKENNY LAW FIRM data.
Basically, now that the PDF file is readable, it is possible to copy and paste the data into an Excel spreadsheet. Unfortunately, this involves a few steps. I’ll skip the details and show the results. As you can see, the total for KILKENNY bills is $13,157.67 and bills for Wawa make up 30.5% of the total. See Figure 3 below.
That’s interesting, but what is more interesting is an analysis of how much money the township spent on legal fees for a whole year, including a breakdown of how much was paid to each law firm and for what general purpose. I did this for 2020 (see Figure 4 below).
First, you can see that there were more than 200 bills from law firms paid in 2020 for a total of $161,111.16. [View the Video below.] This happens to be 8% over the 2020 budgeted amount of $149,000.
I broke down the bills into 3 broad legal categories: Solicitor, Litigation, and Labor. 73% of the 2020 paid bills were for “solicitor”, which is a fancy term for a lawyer advising the various committees and boards regarding correctly applying local, state and national laws. Only 16% involved “litigation.” The KILKENNY fees for Wawa, for example, fall into that category.
In 2020, the budget allocated $65,000 to pay for solicitor fees from KILKENNY. Actually, KILKENNY was paid nearly $126,000, which is 78% of the total legal fees paid by the township in 2020.
Unfortunately, I cannot do this type of analysis every year for every type of expenditure. The Treasurer’s Report is a good source of information of this sort but on a monthly basis.
For example, we can go back to the Supervisor webpage and access the May 2021 Treasurer’s Report. Figure 5 shows the page related to POLICE SERVICES for that month and Year-to-Date and compares that to what was budgeted.
While the Treasurer’s Report is very informative it does not break down payments into specific categories such as legal fees paid to specific law firms for which purpose. So, I still rely on the Bills List for that sort of detail.
I hope you found this lesson interesting. Perhaps you will do your own different analysis and get back to me about what you learn.
Posted on 21 Jul 2021, 01:17 - Category: Communication