www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-balanced-online-20131216,0,765660.story

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Online tool gives public a chance to try to balance Baltimore City budget

Mayor says she wants feedback on city priorities

By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

8:23 PM EST, December 16, 2013

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Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake launched an online game Monday that allows Baltimoreans to decide how they would balance the 2015 city budget.

The Balanced Baltimore tool allows users to select whether to increase or decrease spending in about 45 different categories. Rawlings-Blake said her administration will consider the choices residents make as it develops a plan to close a projected $20 million shortfall.

"We want to hear directly from citizens on what services they believe should be reduced and where new investment should be made to keep our city moving forward," she said.

The game is to remain available on the city website until the end of January, when the administration has scheduled an online town hall to debate budget priorities, investments and spending cuts. Officials are also planning a series of public budget workshops.

The 2015 budget year begins July 1.

The funding decisions in the online tool are divided into six categories: "better schools," "safer streets," "stronger neighborhoods," "innovative government" and a "cleaner and healthier city."

Users can raise or cut spending in areas including park maintenance, after-school programs, hazardous waste removal and police helicopters. They don't have the option of adjusting salaries or benefits for city workers or resetting tax breaks.

For example, users may add $1 million to the city's $37 million waste removal and recycling program to improve a drop-off center, or impose a fee for bulk trash pick-up.

After users balance the budget, the program generates unexpected scenarios — infrastructure emergencies, federal sequestration, property tax appeals — that require more spending adjustments.

Rawlings-Blake said the online town hall will give the public a chance to raise issues not laid out in the online tool. She encouraged families without computers at home to visit neighborhood libraries.

This is the fourth year the administration has sought public participation in budget decisions, but a spokeswoman said the game is the most advanced way yet of gathering input.

The spokeswoman, Caron A. Brace, described allowing users to consider both increases and decreases in the six categories as a significant improvement.

The application still had a few glitches Monday — such as "Blah blah blah closing text" on the final screen where users were thanked for their participation. That was removed within a few hours.

The mayor announced the budget game at the Emerging Technology Center in East Baltimore, a nonprofit incubator that's helped develop more than 300 new technology and bio-tech companies over the last 11 years.

Rawlings-Blake said she wanted to highlight the program as an example of the city's responding to the public's desire to bring more jobs to Baltimore.

Rawlings-Blake said her administration's use of outcome-based budgeting — the practicing of funding programs based on effectiveness — has preserved programs, such as the Emerging Technology Center, through the sluggish economic recovery.

"The most important aspect of outcome-based budgeting is working with residents to hear their priorities," the mayor said.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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