Imagine sitting down to balance your budget only to find yourself $81 million short.
That daunting task is exactly the one facing those drafting Baltimore County’s next annual budget, which is facing down an $81 million deficit next year. To balance the books and invest in new projects, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has been telling the public, there will be tradeoffs.
But why tell citizens about how hard it is to make those tradeoffs when they can try it for themselves?
That is the idea behind a new, game-like online tool launched Wednesday called Balancing Act. The website allows citizens to make changes in spending and revenues so they can get a sense of what county spokesman T.J. Smith calls “fiscal realities.”
“Now here you go, it’s right in front of you, and you play with it,” Smith said. “You want four new schools? Here’s the math.”
The tool has a chart representing different aspects of Baltimore County’s budget like schools, public safety and economic development. It starts with a nearly $81 million deficit. The public’s job: to raise revenues or cut spending while choosing new projects that are important to them.
Using this tool, someone could decide they want Baltimore County to build two new high schools. The tool does the math: two schools means $12 million per year with a 20-year spending commitment. Where does that $12 million come from? One option the tool provides is to impose developer impact fees.
The tool also shows financial obligations that cannot be changed. There is $717 million tied up in mandatory spending such as debt service, retirement and health insurance funds. In the program, those numbers are “locked” — they cannot be changed.
Balancing Act is already in use in other municipal governments. Virginia Beach, Va. is in its third year using the program, said the city’s budget management services administrator Jonathan Hobbs.
Hobbs said Virginia Beach has successfully used the tool to allow the public to give feedback on the city manager’s proposed budget before it is voted on by the city council.
Virginia Beach budget analyst Jesse Stephenson said the program attracts “a few thousand” visitors each year. Most use it as a learning tool, he said, though some do submit balanced budget proposals that the city incorporates into its public input process.
Johnny Olszewski Jr. delivered an upbeat message on the campaign trail, promising a fresh approach to governing as Baltimore County executive. Now in office and facing a budget shortfall, he is traveling around the county telling a more sobering story.
One benefit of the tool is that it can engage people that are not usually part of the budget process, Stephenson said, noting that “from anecdotal experience we think we are capturing a younger group proportionally” than methods like public meetings. He said the city has had success engaging millennials and even high schoolers with the tool.
Smith did not immediately know whether Baltimore County will be collecting data from the program’s use, but said it is primarily envisioned as a learning tool — an extension of seven public meetings in which Olszewski talked about the budget challenges facing the county.
Those town hall meetings sparked speculation Olszewski might make a push to raise county taxes for the first time in decades, something he told the Baltimore Sun last month is on the table but “the last thing that we should turn to.”
Olszewski will submit his first proposed budget to the County Council on April 15.