A Citizen’s Guide to the DC Budget

| November 1st, 2016 | PDF of this report

Drivers’ licenses. Cash assistance for families in need. Trash collection. Financing for affordable housing. Teachers, police officers and firefighters. Library books.

All are made possible in the District of Columbia through one thing: The city’s annual budget.

Certainly a budget that provides this wide a range of goods and services is a bit complicated. In 2015, DC’s budget totaled $11 billion.[1] It funds more than 130 agencies performing services from recycling pickup to recreation to rental housing assistance. But in some basic ways, the city’s budget is a lot like your own.

In deciding how to spend your money, you determine your priorities. At the top of the list for many people are shelter, food, and transportation, but you may choose among various options where you live, what you eat and how you travel. So you want to examine your income, or in city budget lingo—revenue—to figure out how much money you have. Then given the choices you made, you review the expenses you pay every day, month or year—items such as rent or a mortgage, utilities, food, and insurance.

Are they exactly equal? Probably not!

If you have more money than your current expenditures, you might be able to pay for some additions without any sacrifice, or build up your savings. But if you calculate that these expenses will cost more than you will earn, you have to make some choices. Perhaps you should cut expenses, such as saving money by exercising outdoors instead of inside a gym, or by eating out less. Or maybe you’ll decide to increase the amount of revenue you bring in, by working overtime or trying to find a higher-paying job. Another option might be to shift expenses from one area to another. For example, next year you might decide to buy a new suit using money you saved by brown-bagging your lunch instead of buying it every day.

Sometimes unexpected events happen—say, a car repair or a hospital visit—and you’ll need to spend additional money. If your situation is an emergency, you might decide to tap into savings you’ve put aside for a “rainy day.” How much money should you save for such unanticipated events? And when you borrow from your savings, when and how do you pay it back?

If you’ve faced these kind of questions, then you already understand some of the basics of the DC budget and how it is developed. Whether it’s your income or the city’s, there is never enough to purchase everything you want, so choices about spending priorities and revenues need to be made each year.

This guide will help you better understand DC’s budget. We will explain where DC gets its money, how it spends its money, and what happens when there’s no more money left or there’s a surplus. We’ll outline the process for putting the budget together every year. And we’ll give you ideas on how you can—and should!—get involved in the process.

Click here to read the Citizens’ Guide to the DC Budget.

 

[1] Enterprise funds, which include some dedicated taxes and user fees to quasi-government agencies such as DC Water, are not included as part of the overall DC budget for this guide.