D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is standing by his plan to repay city employees nearly $20 million for furlough days they were required to take last year, even though he is not planning an aggressive effort to refund taxpayers or compensate for tens of millions of dollars in human services cuts over the past three years.
On Tuesday, the D.C. Council did not act on Gray’s proposal to give a repayment bonus to city employees who were forced to take nonpaying holidays last year to help resolve a suspected budget gap. But the idea is far from dead, as several council members said Tuesday that they hope to still work with Gray to free up money this year to repay the employees.
At his biweekly news conference Tuesday morning, Gray defended the proposal, saying city employees were asked “to bite the bullet” last year to help close the budget shortfall.
“I was chair of the council at the time these decisions were made and it was an excruciating, painful process,” Gray said. “I think people really felt badly we had to ask people to take four furlough days … and it wasn’t even necessary.”
But since 2009, the District has also raised the sales, gas, alcohol and cigarette taxes as well as increased dozens of fees to help it withstand the recession.
Last summer, the council and mayor also raised the income tax on residents who make $350,000 a year or more. Though there has been talk of rescinding a controversial tax on out-of-state municipal bonds, there have been no serious discussions on rolling back other tax increases.
Social service advocates are also frustrated that there hasn’t been more debate about using the city’ estimated $79 million surplus to restore some cuts to human services programs, including substantial cuts to affordable housing. Gray is also proposing tens of millions of dollars in cuts in social service programs next year, including a $23 million reduction in health insurance coverage for low-income residents not eligible for Medicaid.
Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) has argued against repaying city employees because “it sends the wrong message.”
“Every other jurisdiction has not just furlough days, but massive reductions,” Catania said during Tuesday’s council meeting. “It sends the wrong message that, because we can, we will make our employees whole but we are not making whole, and no way we can make whole, the other taxpayers in our city.”
Catania charged that Gray, who was heavily supported by organized labor during his 2010 mayoral campaign, and other council members were merely catering to politically active city employees.
In addition to Gray, council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), Michael Brown (I-At Large) and Vincent Orange (D-At Large) have also spoken out in recent days in support of repaying city employees. Earlier this year, council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) was also quoted as saying she regretted supporting the initial furlough days.
All four council members have been mentioned as possible candidates for council chairman or mayor in 2014.
“We know money came directly back from people who otherwise would have earned it,” Gray said. “This is an effort to connect (the surplus) directly to where it came from.”
In an interview with reporters Wednesday, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) suggested the possible compromise of repaying city employees back for only two of the four furlough days. Brown said he was also open to giving city employees some future paid time off instead of directly repaying them for the lost wages.