Baltimore’s policy wonks have received an early Christmas gift this year with the re-launching of Budget Live!, a website where anyone can explore the city’s budget down to line items, and which includes a simulator that allows residents to try their hand at balancing the budget.

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Baltimore is currently facing a $15 million projected shortfall for fiscal year 2015 (the current fiscal year which is about halfway through), and a $30 million shortfall for fiscal year 2016.

“That’s significant,” said Andrew Kleine, budget chief for the city’s Bureau of the Budget & Management Research (BBMR), “especially after several years in which we have had to cut back, reduce services. The low-hanging fruit has been plucked so it gets harder and harder as we continue to experience these kinds of shortfalls.”

Growing costs, said Kleine, are the reason for the city’s current budget issues. “The economy’s improving so we’re seeing the benefits of that in higher property tax revenue, income tax revenue is increasing, hotel tax revenue, those kinds of things, but our costs are continuing to outpace that,” said Kleine.

Part of the difficulty Baltimore faces is that it has already maxed out a number of its major revenue streams, possessing the highest income tax rate allowed by state law and with a property tax “well above any other jurisdiction,” according to Kleine. “We see those as competitive disadvantages when it comes to growing the city, and so we want to change that.”

Budget Live!’s simulator, called “Balanced Baltimore,” represents a dialogue between the city and its residents about the difficulty of balancing the budget as well as setting budget priorities.

“Unlike us, citizens aren’t spending all their time poring over the city budget, but we think it’s important for them to kind of stand in the mayor’s shoes and understand the kinds of trade-offs that she faces in balancing the budget where there’s always a greater demand for services than what the money we bring in can support,” said Kleine. “By asking citizens to make those trade-offs, we learn a lot about what their priorities are.”

Budget Live! will also be presenting some questions to residents, including how they would divide a $100 budget among the mayor’s seven priority outcomes for a growing Baltimore, in order to start discussions and provide the mayor direct feedback from citizens. At the end of January, the “Balanced Baltimore” and discussion sections of Baltimore Live! will be shut down and its results collected into a report that will be presented to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake during a series of annual budget meetings early next year.

“Those are the meetings in which making final decisions on what gets presented to the Board of Estimates in March,” said Kleine.

City residents can also contact BBMR with questions about the budget from the website, using the “Contact” tab. BBMR is committing to answering those questions within two business days, according to Kirsten Silveira, a budget management analyst with BBMR.

The website, which is accessible at http://bbmr.baltimorecity.gov/BudgetLive2016.aspx, also has a schedule of upcoming workshops citizens can attend to learn more about the budget process.


ralejandro@afro.com