Mike McGuire, one of the organizers of the Occupy Baltimore protests, left a city-sponsored public budget workshop Saturday morning feeling about as disappointed as a grass-roots activist can feel.
The 39-year-old Hampden resident had spent weeks trying to rally a large turnout for the event at the Cylburn Arboretum. He'd gone to the trouble of obtaining the worksheet for the forum in advance and had spent long hours poring over line items with other members of the movement. He'd researched minute details of the city's $2.7 billion budget.
The 75 citizens who attended the meeting were informed, they had opinions, and they were eager to contribute.
But McGuire thought the half-hour allotted to questions and answers was far too little time to delve into issues this complex. Some of the options presented by the city, he said, seemed verbally weighted to steer attendees toward particular conclusions.
"I don't think this meeting really accomplished what you set out to accomplish," McGuire told city budget director Andrew Kleine. "I found it kind of empty. Considering how hard we worked, that's really, really frustrating."
Saturday's forum was the third public budget workshop held by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office. The mayor is scheduled to present her proposed budget for fiscal year 2012-2013 at the end of March, but she has warned that she may need to make difficult choices to close a projected $52 million shortfall. The City Council is required by law to approve a balanced budget by June 25; the new spending plan will go into effect July 1.
At times during the two-hour forum, the discourse was spirited, but it remained consistently cordial.
Kleine walked the workshop participants through the current crisis, which he attributes in large part to the collapse of the housing market. While revenues have remained at roughly 2008 levels, he said, the city's fixed expenses alone have grown by $130 million in the past four years.
"When you look at the litany of things we've already cut and the taxes we've already raised, we've already plucked off all the low-hanging fruit and beyond," he said.
During the workshop, city residents filled out the equivalent of a four-page form in which they were asked to choose between, for instance, slicing $9 million from the budget by freezing the pay of all but the lowest-paid city employees, or saving $13 million by deciding against hiring any police officers next year.
"I'm looking forward to seeing all of your balanced budgets," Rawlings-Blake told the group.
But some residents said they hadn't been given the tools they needed to accomplish their task. They complained that the worksheets weren't sufficiently detailed to enable them to make educated decisions.
What, they asked, would it mean to "fully fund prosecutors"? What specific programs would be eliminated if they chose to "discontinue support for small and emerging businesses"?
As John Duda, 34, a Bolton Hill resident and the co-founder of the Red Emma Bookstore Collective expressed it: "This is basically about getting citizens to sign off on living with austerity rather than allowing us real input into the budgeting process."
But Kleine said that the citizen response will have a greater impact than workshop participants might realize. It's not so much that individual questions asked by the citizens that will point administrators in new directions, he said, but their collective responses on the worksheets.
"The mayor wants to make sure that her priorities match up with the priorities of the citizens," he said, adding that the worksheets from each forum are being collected and the responses tallied and collated. A summary report will be prepared for Rawlings-Blake and for the City Council.
This is just the second year that public budget workshops have been held in Baltimore, and Kleine admitted that their structure could be improved. But, he said the forums are a step in the right direction.
"You won't find a more real-world city budget workshop anywhere in the country," he said. "Normally, these events are just open-mike nights. But we wanted to give residents as clear an idea as possible of what we have to go through each year when we try to balance the budget."