By MATT HOPF
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka believes that a new feature on her office's website containing financial reports of local governments will help keep them in check.
On the last day of a three-day tour of the state to announce her run for a second term as comptroller, Topinka introduced the government transparency website "the Warehouse" Wednesday at Quincy City Hall.
"Government acts responsibly when it knows when people are watching," the Republican comptroller said.
The website will feature the 9,200 reports that the comptroller's office receives annually from 5,200 local governments in Illinois, including cities, counties, townships and special taxing districts.
Visitors to the website will be able to search records by report type, unit of government or community name. They will than be taken to a landing page where they can view a snapshot of local finances, annual financial reports and audits. The site also allows users to compare different government entities.
"We have further broken down the annual financial reports to make it easier to find what you're looking for, so residents can immediately go to detailed information about government assets, expenditures, fund balances and debt," Topinka said.
She said the website will make it easier for residents to obtain the reports instead of having to file a Freedom of Information Act request with governments that don't already provide them online.
Local governments are now required to file their annual financial reports and audits electronically, after legislation was signed into law last year. Communities that don't file the reports risk being fined.
"If a government doesn't file, it will pay," Topinka said. "We will hit them up with penalties, and let me tell you, taxpayers are not going to stand very long for those who will not be compliant."
Topinka said 98 percent of government entities are now in compliance with the law but the department has levied some fines.
"We've also sent auditors to some where they have not complied," she said. "We've tried to walk them through. We've tried to show them how if they didn't know how, and some did not know how. ... But some became uncooperative, so we had to take other means."
Quincy Mayor Kyle Moore, who attended Wednesday's announcement, said he supports the launch of the Warehouse and compared it to the Quincy Scorecard, a comparative online tool launched in August to measure city services and performance that he proposed during his campaign.
"It fits my philosophy and certainly your philosophy in making government accountable to the people," Moore said.
The Warehouse, which can be found at warehouse.illinoiscomptroller.com, follows last year's launch of the Ledger, which provides visitors with up-to-date figures on the state's daily receipts and bill backlog numbers, state agency budgets and expenses, and an state employee salary database.
The bill backlog in Illinois is getting worse again, Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said Wednesday during a stop in Quincy.
The state now has a backlog of $7.5 billion, and the total is expected to climb to $9 billion in December.
"We had it down to $5 billion somewhere around March or April, when it was tax season," Topinka said. "So we had more money coming in. We could pay more bills. Well, tax season is over, and we're back to normal again."
She said the comptroller's office is juggling to try to get bills paid as soon as it can and the payment cycle from the state is down to three months instead of up to a year.
Although the Illinois General Assembly is expected to convene for three days next week, Topinka doesn't believe there will be any movement from the conference committee working on a plan to address the state's pension systems, which face a $100 billion shortfall.
Despite the size of the problem, she said she rarely hears from the general public or lawmakers about the pension systems.
"This is a crisis," she said. "The only people who talk to me about it are teachers, and I understand why. They don't get Social Security. The pension is what they have to live on in their old age."
Topinka puts lawmakers on task for failing to properly fund the system over the years.
"(Teachers have) done what they were supposed to do, and courtesy of the legislature, which had Rod Blagojevich as frosting on that cake, that's where the money has been taken or not funded with pension holidays," she said. "But the state employee is unfortunately going to take the rap for this."