Mayor Bowser speaks with D.C. residents on ways to improve the city’s budget. (Photo by Shannen Hill)

The mayor of the District, in the process of creating her first budget, sought the views of residents in three wards, asking what the District’s priorities for fiscal year 2016 should be.

Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) held public engagement forums on the city’s budget at Wilson Senior High School on Feb.19, Dunbar Senior High School on Feb. 23 and Anacostia High School on Feb. 28.

Vincent Gray, the previous mayor, held budget input sessions after he submitted it to the D.C. Council. Bowser said that she thought that process was flawed and wanted residents’ views first.

Bowser told hundreds of residents who participated in the Anacostia forum that their input was crucial. “You are at Fresh Start February’s last event,” the mayor said. “We need your help on the budget. Before I write the budget I want to know what you think we should do and tell us what to touch and what not to touch.”

Bowser said that the city faces an approximate $195 million budget deficit for the fiscal year 2016 budget, which starts on Oct. 1. She made it clear that the District government – a $10 billion entity – must close the gap and balance its budget. D.C. City Administrator Rashad Young followed the mayor by explaining the budget process with the aid of a slide presentation.

Forty-one tables were set up around the Anacostia’s gym representing issue areas including education, economic opportunity, infrastructure and environment, public safety, and neighborhoods. Residents who registered for the forum chose their preference areas.

A facilitator sat at each table to move along the discussion on what the mayor’s budget should entail in their preference area. Jenny Reed, the deputy budget director, guided the facilitators throughout the two-hour event.

Bowser and Young participated in the table discussions, and the mayor visited various tables to observe the process and chat with participants.

(Photo by Shannen Hill)

Greg Stewart, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 7, said he made it a point to come to the Anacostia forum. “I wanted to have a say on the priorities of next year’s budget,” he said. “In Ward 7, education, economic development, and market rate housing in Deanwood, especially close to the Metro station, are important to me.”

Lisa Shaw, an activist who also lives in Ward 7, said , “As our city is changing, we need more people involved in this type of process as well as the political process. Residents who know the lay of the land in our city need to have their voices heard.”

Bowser took an informal poll among the participants near the end of the forum to measure which preference area was the most important. This was done by claps and it was clear that education was viewed as the top priority.

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine (D) and D.C. Council member Vincent Orange (D-At Large) attended the forum and various Bowser department heads and executive staff members participated in the discussions. Orange also participated in the Wilson forum that was attended by dozens of residents.

Legendary District coach Wanda Oates, at the Wilson forum, voiced concerns about the city’s education system and how it treats at-risk children. “I wanted to comment on how the city will use its public school resources,” Oates, who made national news when she briefly become the female head coach of the Ballou High School football team in 1985, said. “I am concerned about what Mayor Bowser will do with alternative schools for students who don’t want to go to school. They need somewhere to go.”

Douglass Sloan, a resident of Ward 4 and a candidate in the April 28 special election to serve out the rest of Bowser’s term on the council, attended the Wilson forum. “I am interested in learning more about the District budget process,” Sloan said. “I want to see how the city is spending its own money.”

Bowser will submit her budget proposal to the council in early April.