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Follow the money: Searchable payroll database of city employees posted online


Reporter Greg Jefferson wrote a story in today’s paper that examined how taxpayer money is being spent on salaries and overtime for San Antonio’s 10,000 city employees. The story looks at the city’s highest-paid employees, and explains why $13 million in overtime went to the Fire Department and many of its dispatchers.

This information was gleaned from a payroll database at City Hall. Express-News Database Editor Kelly Guckian filed an open-records request, obtained the data from the city and analyzed it. And you can analyze the data yourself. Mike Howell, managing editor of the Express-News Web site, set up a user interface for our online readers. You can look up employees by name. Or simply hit “search” and the results will automatically show you the highest-paid employees.

Related: Telling stories with data: Police chases and drug smugglers on the Texas-Mexico border

The salaries range from $275,000 (City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who recently received a much-publicized raise, to $18,200 (an employee in the city’s Human Resources Department).

City Manager Sheryl Sculley
City Manager Sheryl Sculley

Other media organizations, believing the public has a right to know how tax money is spent, are publishing payroll data of government agencies. The nonprofit group Texas Watchdog recently posted data of state employees earning more than $100,000.

Readers have had mixed reactions. Not everyone believes the names and salaries of government employees should be made public, as some of the comments on this blog post by the Houston Chronicle show. One reader wrote: “I wholeheartedly agree that this is public information, but that doesn’t mean it has to be broadcast without context.”

I think the key question is whether the database helps readers learn something about the way their government works.

Examining how tax money is spent is a legitimate news story. And if that’s the case, why shouldn’t readers be able to look at the data themselves and crunch the numbers? In the Internet age, shouldn’t newspapers make this information publicly available to everyone, instead of keeping it to themselves?

A ranking of the highest-paid officials might show us the priorities — and possible excesses — of a government agency. And in a city where police and firefighters constantly complain about being understaffed, it’s revealing to see a few public-safety employees earning nearly $80,000 in overtime in 2007. Are those dispatchers overworked?

If publishing this data gives readers a tool to ask those kinds of meaningful questions, that’s a good thing.