A screenshot of the online Balancing Act tool

A screenshot of the online Balancing Act tool to simulate managing Lynchburg's proposed fiscal year 2020 budget.

Every spring, residents across Lynchburg watch and listen as city council debates, discusses and ultimately balances the following fiscal year’s budget. Now, citizens can take the task on themselves with the city’s Balancing Act tool.

The online program — available on the city’s website at www.lynchburgva.gov — allows users to change funding allocations for the proposed fiscal year 2020 budget of $408.1 million.

The current proposed budget includes no tax rate increases, maintains current services and preserves the majority of funding for public safety but does propose an increase in trash decal and bag fees.

The budget proposal requests a $30.1 million, or 8 percent, increase over the current fiscal year’s budget. The majority of these additional funds are the result of significant investment in the city’s capital assets over the next five years through the capital improvement plan.

The proposal also includes flat funding — $42 million — for Lynchburg City Schools.

With the Balancing Act tool, citizens can make their own changes to the funding amount for all departments in the general fund, including public safety and the school division. Users also can change tax rates and see how those changes affect funds available for city services.

Mayor Treney Tweedy said the simulation allows citizens to see the bigger picture of how the city operates and the amount of money it actually takes to fund those operations and services.

“I am excited about it,” she said. “…We need citizens to engage with us and to understand there’s a lot of deliberation, discussion and information sharing that goes into these decisions on the budget.”

Finance Director Donna Witt said citizen engagement was a driving factor in the city’s decision to use the tool, which costs $6,800 annually. She said city staff came across Balancing Act on the city of Charlottesville’s website when looking for different ways to increase citizen engagement last year.

“It’s more of an educational tool,” Communications and Marketing Director Joann Martin said. “We hope people will go on and see that it’s not so easy. We heard during the budget pop-ups people say ‘We would like the city to provide this service and that service’ and we hope that they’ll understand that those things cost money, so if you’re going to add something, what are you willing to take away?”

Budget Analyst Starlette Early said Balancing Act forces citizens to work within the same constraints as city council, so users can’t alter sales tax rates or other items that council has no authority to change. Witt said this can help educate residents about the cost of providing services and the different factors council members have to weigh when making budget decisions.

Martin said the tool is a good way for those who like to vent on social media about these decisions to see how it all works.

“Social media is great for commiserating with people who think like you do but it doesn’t really change anything,” she said. “We hope that this will be one tool to help people get engaged. We also encourage people to come to the public hearing. People will complain about [council decisions] and they have the right to do that, but doing it on Facebook doesn’t change policy.”

When changing the funding allocation for each department, users also can submit a comment about that change directly to the city. Martin said staff will collect these comments and recommended funding changes and present them to council during budget discussions.

Those who would like to see additional detail behind the numbers can do so by clicking a small “i” next to each budget line. This will open a pop-up that provides specifics about that item and links to the section of the proposed fiscal year 2020 budget for that budget line.

Balancing Act also gives citizens a chance to see the allocation of their tax dollars with the Taxpayer Receipt tool.

Users enter some basic information, such as annual income, age, assessed value of property and what percentage of shopping they perform locally. An algorithm then determines the estimated taxes for that user and provides a “tax receipt” showing the allocation of those taxes between city departments based on the portion of general fund each department entails.

City officials encourage residents to take some time to play with Balancing Act ahead of two upcoming public hearings. City council will hold a public hearing on the proposed fiscal year 2020 budget at 7 p.m. April 2 and a public hearing on the proposed increase for the real property tax based on reassessment rates at 7 p.m. April 9.

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