Finally, an app that could curb federal spending

Finally, an app that could curb federal spending

June 5th, 2013 in Opinion Free Press

EXAMPLES OF TAXPAYER-BACKED FEDERAL LOANS IN OUR AREA

• $2.7 million to the Holiday Inn Express in Cleveland, Tenn.

• $2 million to Ichiban Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar in Chattanooga

• $1.6 million to Cherry Springs Nursery in McMinnville, Tenn.

• $1.2 million to Premier Carpet Solutions in Dalton, Ga.

• $407,000 to Waterworks Car Wash in Dayton, Tenn.

• $285,000 to Little Caesars Pizza in Scottboro, Ala.

• $256,900 to Massage Envy in Chattanooga

• $250,000 to Scratch Golf in Chattanooga

• $159,700 to Fiddleheads Garden Center in Dalton, Ga.

• $149,000 to The Ice Cream Show in Chattanooga

• $130,800 to Paxton Family Chiropractic in Ringgold, Ga.

Source: www.OpenTheBooks.com

How is government spending our money? That's the question Adam Andrzejewski, a government watchdog and former Illinois gubernatorial candidate, wanted to answer. Unfortunately, there wasn't an easy way to open the federal government's checkbook and track where the dollars went. So, Andrzejewski improvised.

He collected massive text files of government spending that existed on various federal websites and combined them onto one easy-to-use, searchable smartphone app and website called Open the Books.

Open the Books allows taxpayers to see who received federal contracts, loans, farm subsidies, grants and other giveaways, as well as the amounts of those handouts. It also allows users to search federal employee salaries.

By downloading the app, it is possible to see which people, companies and agencies received tax dollars within a five-mile radius of where you are. You can also search beyond your area by plugging in a zip code or entering the recipient of federal dollars. On the website, OpenTheBooks.com, even more search functions are available.

The app has become so popular that tens of thousands of Americans are now using it to hold government accountable. At one point last week, Open the Books was the third most downloaded app in Apple's App Store.

When he was trying out his app, Andrzejewski, found that a Lamborghini dealer in his hometown of Hinsdale, Ill., received a taxpayer guaranteed low-interest loan for $1.5 million.

We decided to follow Andrzejewski's lead and take Open the Books for a spin to see if the app could unearth similar examples of questionable government spending in our region. What we found was astounding -- and infuriating.

The Four Points by Sheraton which opened last December near Hamilton Place mall got a $3.4 million taxpayer-subsidized federal loan. Enzo's Market in Chattanooga's Southside opened last month with the assistance of a $3.3 million taxpayer-backed federal loan. Zaxby's on Signal Mountain Road received a federal loan worth $1.1 million in 2012.

Open the Books also revealed that Brewer Broadcasting, which owns radio stations including Power 94, Groove 93 and Cat Country, and publishes The Pulse, recently collected two federal loans worth a total of $3 million.

Art Creations, which hosts art classes and sells art supplies at locations in North Shore and Hamilton Place, snagged a $495,000 federal loan. Fowler Brothers Company, which operates The Furniture Shoppe and The Patio Shop near downtown Chattanooga got a $1.75 million taxpayer-backed loan.

Open the Books also showed that some area federal employees are receiving princely paychecks. For example, the Superintendent of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park pulled down more than $116,000 in taxpayers' money in 2011. An IRS agent in Dalton, Ga., rakes in almost $110,000 a year and four Department of Agriculture employees in Cleveland, Tenn., earn more than $100,000 a year.

With the Farm Bill snaking its way through Congress, agricultural subsidies are on a lot of taxpayers' minds. Open the Books tracks those as well. Among the hundreds of taxpayer farm subsidies in our region were:

• $119,629 to Triple J Logging in Summerville, Ga., in 2010.

• $56,689 to Jackson's General Merchandise in Pikeville, Tenn., in 2010.

• $15,623 to Shadow Nursery in Winchester, Tenn., also in 2010.

Additionally, the app indicates that EPB, Chattanooga's government-owned electric provider, tore through a $112 million federal grant in 2010 to subsidize the construction cost of its frequently criticized Smart Grid. Chattanooga's public transportation bureaucracy, CARTA, snatched up $19.9 million in handouts between 2010-12. Even Rhea County's Economic and Tourism Council got in on the act, costing federal taxpayers $10,000 in 2010.

For too long, federal spending has been almost impossible for Americans to track. The ingenious Open the Books app, however, puts government transparency in the palm of taxpayers' hands. As a result, federal lawmakers know we're watching where our tax dollars are going and will be forced to spend more responsibly.