Our database design group is constantly bugging local governments for data sets to play with, even if we're not completely sure what we'll do with them.
Not all of these thoughts pan out. One example: We recently got curious about how money was being spent in recovery from last year's Virginia earthquake. In hopes of creating a searchable database of expenditures, The Sun submitted a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request to the administration of Louisa County, where the earthquake had its epicenter.
There was certainly reason for interest in that area: In Virginia and Washington, several large public structures saw earthquake damage, including the National Cathedral and the Washington Monument.
While Virginia was approved for FEMA quake assistance, Maryland was not. In the Baltimore area, damage was generally less pronounced, with several churches suffering steeple damage and several property owners reporting collapsed chimneys. One of the most heavily impacted of those churches, St. Patrick Church in Fells Point, restarted services in the spring after more than $1 million in repairs. Another, the Basilica of the Assumption, is facing an eight-month repair session that may cost up to $5 million. In most cases, however, Baltimore damage was either minor or well-reported, so we chose to focus on the area around the quake as our test case in requesting spending documents.
What we didn't anticipate was the nature of the group doing the spending. Most earthquake recovery work in Louisa County, according to a spokesperson for the county attorney's office, is paid for by the Louisa Earthquake Relief Committee, a privately funded nonprofit organization exempt from the state's reporting laws.
Louisa County finance director Christian Goodwin plays an advisory role on the committee, which he said receives no public funds and has less stringent reporting requirements. U.S. nonprofits still must submit federal form 990 for taxation purposes, but these usually contain significantly less detail about what groups spend.
For an example of records from a local "quasi-public agency," try searching for "East Baltimore Development" at guidestar.org.
(Update: Goodwin later clarified the county attorney office's initial statement slightly, writing that while some small amounts of FEMA public assistance funding had been delivered to local governments, the largest pieces – this school repair allowance, for example – had still not arrived, as FEMA was in many cases waiting for insurance payouts before determining exact final grants.)
Goodwin says the nonprofit group's structure can have a lot of advantages beyond less stringent reporting requirements, with the group able to respond more quickly to requests for help, without some time-consuming documentation procedures that governments face. Additionally, if a new donor wants to add to the group's funding, the group can rebudget quickly to address pressing recovery needs without an extensive process of public input meetings, Goodwin says.