The last few decades have radically transformed how people expect to find information — and how quickly. With support from the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, an increasing number of local governments are meeting the challenge by expanding public access to information using resources including online tools. Transparency allows residents to hold local government accountable, and it helps Texans who work hard to earn the taxes and fees collected by their local governments see how their money is spent — an important advantage of the easy-to-use tools provided by the Comptroller’s office. Resources include the Transparency Stars program and online databases with information on local government responsibilities such as eminent domain, sheriffs’ and constables’ fees, hotel taxes, local debt, special purpose districts and economic development.
“Beginning in 2007, we were one of the first states to post all state revenue and expenditure details online,” says Russell Gallahan, supervisor of the Comptroller’s Local Government and Transparency teams. “Soon after, we expanded our efforts to local governments. And today, we have developed a comprehensive network of databases and initiatives that encourage transparency and shine light on the operations of our state’s cities, counties and districts.”
Created in March 2016, the Transparency Stars program recognizes cities, counties, school districts, community colleges and special purpose districts that provide online access to important financial data. Besides posting financial documents, these local governments often provide summaries, visualizations, downloadable data and other relevant information.
The Comptroller may award up to five stars to a local government recognizing the following areas:
Transparency Star recipients exemplify the highest standard of financial transparency and governmental accountability. As of March 8, 2023, the Comptroller had recognized 209 local governments and awarded 401 stars (Exhibit 1).
Source: Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
In January 2023, the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) received its fifth star, becoming the first special purpose district to receive stars in every category.
“Receiving all five Transparency Stars from the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts indicates that the TRWD is among the most financially accountable and fiscally transparent governmental agencies in the state,” says James Hill, TRWD’s board vice president. “This award is the gold standard in the state of Texas and is a direct reflection of the hard work performed by staff and my colleagues on the board to ensure the public receives the accountability it expects and deserves.”
At the direction of the Texas Legislature, the Comptroller’s office maintains a database of all entities in Texas authorized to exercise eminent domain (i.e., the right to take private property for public use). This Eminent Domain Database has information reported by authorities, including legal provisions granting their eminent domain authority and the scope of that authority.
Approximately 6,000 entities — both governmental and private — are in the database for the 2022 report year (Exhibit 2).
Source: Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
County commissioners’ courts may set reasonable fees for services by sheriffs’ and constables’ offices. Those fees, as reported by county officials, can be viewed through the Comptroller’s online search tool and the Sheriffs’ and Constables’ Fees Dashboard, allowing viewers to make comparisons and monitor trends.
Certain local governments may collect a hotel occupancy tax (HOT) for uses including the support of sports and community venues. The tax may be levied by a city, a county or a partnership between the two.
To allow the public to better understand the state’s patchwork of HOTs, municipalities and counties must report their tax rates and revenue amounts annually, including the percentage of revenue allocated for specific uses. The Local Hotel Occupancy Tax database shares the information submitted by approximately 450 local governments; it can be filtered and downloaded from the Texas Open Data Portal.
Counties, cities, school districts, junior college districts, certain special purpose districts and other political subdivisions must report debt obligation data to the Comptroller to post (or post the information on their own websites). The Comptroller’s Local Entity Debt Lookup tool makes self-reported debt information available by a political subdivision’s name, entity type, city and/or ZIP code.
Thousands of special purpose districts in Texas provide services including water conservation, toll roads, hospitals, libraries, utilities and fire control efforts.
Depending on their purpose, these districts may be supported by property taxes, sales taxes or user fees and are authorized to issue debt. Certain special purpose districts must annually provide records and other information concerning district finances and tax rates to the Comptroller under a 2017 law, which also required the Comptroller to create the Special Purpose District Public Information Database. The database makes available to the public information submitted by more than 2,300 special purpose districts.
Many of Texas’ special purpose districts also post their budgets, annual reports and detailed spending information online, and 19 of them have earned one or more Transparency Stars to date.
The Development Corporation Act of 1979 gives cities the ability to finance new and expanded business enterprises in their local communities through economic development corporations (EDCs). Certain EDCs, classified as Type A, typically are created to fund industrial development projects such as business infrastructure, manufacturing and research and development. They also can fund military base realignment, job training classes and public transportation.
Other EDCs, classified as Type B, can fund all projects eligible for Type A, as well as parks, museums, sports facilities and affordable housing. They are subject to more administrative restrictions than Type A.
The Development Corporation Act requires all Type A and Type B corporations to file an annual report with the Comptroller by April 1 that includes the corporation’s economic development objectives, total revenues and expenditures for the preceding fiscal year, a breakdown of these expenditures and a list of the corporation’s assets.
The EDC Data Dashboard provides the supporting data for all EDC reports from 1997 to the present. In fiscal 2021, 725 EDCs reported to the Comptroller; reports for fiscal 2022 are still being received.
In Texas, the Local Government Code authorizes municipalities and counties to offer certain incentives to promote economic development, create jobs and build infrastructure:
Under a law approved in 2021, the Comptroller created and made accessible an online database for all local development agreements in Texas. The Chapter 380 and 381 Local Development Agreement Database became operational in August 2021 and currently includes 355 local governments (290 cities and 65 counties) with a total of 3,744 agreements.
The Texas tax code authorizes local governments to establish Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones (TIRZs) and tax abatements to attract companies, develop existing companies, create jobs and attract capital investment:
Data regarding these programs have been reported to and published by the Comptroller for many years; in fall 2023, the Comptroller plans to unveil a new database to replace the former registry and reports.
The Comptroller’s Monthly Sales and Use Tax Allocations online search tool presents data on monthly local sales and use tax payments to local jurisdictions.
When used with other local indicators, these reports may help local governments analyze present and future economic trends. The tool allows the user to filter the reports to show:
The tool also provides local sales and use tax rates (including recent rate changes) and a local tax rate comparison summary.
The Comptroller’s transparency tools have long been a resource for citizens, legislators, news media and others who want to know where governmental entities get and spend their money. The amount and range of data keep growing as the Comptroller pioneers ways to better engage the state’s local government constituencies. Transparency promotes accountability and provides an opportunity for residents to be better informed about what is going on in their communities. As evidenced by the increasing number of Transparency Stars, local governments realize the benefits of becoming more transparent and see how an informed citizenry relates to more efficient governance and better policy decisions. FN
Keep up with reporting requirements for cities, counties, school districts and special purpose districts with our reminders.