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Apps / Data / Municipal government

‘Balanced Baltimore’: web app lets you design the city budget

The website takes users through a series of six "priority outcomes" used by the mayor's office for its annual "outcome budgeting" and allows people to increase or decrease funding for a variety of items, or leave funding for a specific city service or agency as is.

Baltimore City Hall. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

An ominous message greets people on the new Balanced Baltimore website: “The City of Baltimore is facing a $20 million budget gap entering fiscal 2015.”
With that as a preface, the website then takes users through a series of six “priority outcomes” used by the mayor’s office for its annual “outcome budgeting” — outcomes such as “better schools” and “stronger neighborhoods” — and allows people to increase or decrease funding for a variety of items, or leave funding for a specific city service or agency as is.
Visit Balanced Baltimore here.
Welcome to your first exercise in crowdsourcing city budget priorities. Can residents play a significant role in shifting how the city in which they live spends their tax dollars?
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the new website during a press conference Monday at the Emerging Technology Center.
So speak now, it seems, or forever relegate your complaints to Twitter — which is precisely what DennisTheCynic (otherwise known as Dennis McIver) did upon seeing the message Balanced Baltimore left him after submitting his budget.

BalancedBaltimore

“Blah blah blah closing text.” Screenshot via Twitter.


Mayor Rawlings-Blake responded on Twitter, saying the unedited closing text was “left from the testing phase.”
City CTO Chris Tonjes said by e-mail that “no new funds or people were required” to put together Balanced Baltimore, which was designed by an employee of the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology — which is funded, according to the website, with $8.5 million.
Although a far cry from the audit of all city agencies that vocal leaders in Baltimore’s tech community such as Dave Troy would like to see, the website presents the current levels of funding for different city services and agencies. The allotment for “policing efforts to the city’s 9 police districts” is highest at $225 million.
It also gives residents a chance to play with the various challenges that city budget leaders face.
But a more interesting exercise might be juxtaposing the information included in the separate documents describing the city’s six priority outcomes with the current funding levels outlined on the Balanced Baltimore website. For example, this document on “stronger neighborhoods” shows the increase in vacant housing in Baltimore city, from just north of 6,000 vacants in 1990 to the 2012 level of 15,957. (A quick check on the city’s open data portal shows the 2013 level is at 16,245.) The current funding allotment for “blight elimination,” according to Balanced Baltimore, stands at $2.5 million.
On Twitter, reaction to the website has been mixed. Some have tweeted directly at the mayor offering suggestions for where city spending ought to be cut. At least one person wants to know why there isn’t an option to raise taxes or fees. And one other user claimed to have enjoyed the website — that is, until reaching the unedited closing screen, pictured above.
That Twitter user, Kristerfer Burnett, would later tweet: “This is clearly a ‘Just to say we got people involved’ effort.”

Companies: Mayor’s Office of Information Technology / City of Baltimore
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