Stepping up to a broad circular table of men and women all busy crunching numbers to balance Baltimore's budget, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake smiled.
"Y'all look like you're hard at work," she said.
"Well," replied Linda Moyd, a 55-year-old activist in the city's Gilmor neighborhood, "we've got to get this budget right."
Like others at the "Balanced Baltimore" citizen workshop in East Baltimore on Saturday, Moyd seemed fully engaged in the task at hand — closing a projected $20 million shortfall in 2015 while protecting the services she values.
"I love it," she blurted out at one point, when she and another participant ranked a specific fire service similarly. "We're almost on the same page!"
As in past years, Baltimore officials are busy this month collecting budget input from city residents — a process they said helps inform finance decisions under an "outcome-based" budget approach the city adopted in 2011.
That approach rewrites the city's budget each year based on individual programs' effectiveness in meeting identified goals, rather than on funding levels in previous years, said Andrew Kleine, the city's budget director. It avoids across-the-board cuts in favor of a more selective approach.
The approach has protected funding for a youth violence prevention program, a prenatal home visiting program and job training programs that, although effective, likely would have faced cuts "under a traditional budget," Kleine said.
It's also redirected funding away from programs that had good intentions but were not proving effective, he said, such as career training for high school dropouts and assistance programs for children of prisoners.
Collecting citizen input is part of the new approach to budgeting — and this year has been more successful than ever, Kleine said.
Much of that is thanks to a new online tool — really, a numbers game — that allows users to increase or decrease spending in about 45 different city budget categories, with the end goal of closing the shortfall.
In past years, the city collected input from between 250 and 500 citizens. This year, more than 600 have already played the online game, Kleine said, and many more have attended community workshops like the one Saturday.
City officials will collect all of the input at the end of January and compile it into a report for Rawlings-Blake, who said her administration will use the input when making tough decisions about the budget.
Rawlings-Blake said she is happy the online game has been a success. "I'm excited to see what's going to happen in the next phase of the online conversation."
But the workshops are equally important, she said, because "many people want this face-to-face, around-the-table engagement," she said.
That seemed to be the case at Moyd's table, which was in charge of finding savings in "safe streets" programs — police and fire, animal control and transportation.
The participants considered eliminating a fire truck if it meant more ambulances.
"Most of the time in my community, when I see a fire truck, it's not a fire, it's someone sick," Moyd said.
They also struggled with the idea of cutting funding from police.
"All of it was important to me, with the Police Department, because one [funded police program] can't work without the other," said Ella Broadway, 62, president of the city's Resident Advisory Board and a community leader in her O'Donnell Heights neighborhood.
Rawlings-Blake assured the residents that their input would be noted.
"When we're deliberating the budget, we listen very carefully to what comes out of these sessions," she told the attendees. "So don't think it's just for fun."
City residents can try their own hand at balancing the city's budget online at http://balancedbudget.baltimorecity.gov/exercise/.