For nearly six hours Monday, the 13 members of the D.C. Council sat together in a cramped room and did what they could to hammer out the city’s $10.3 billion fiscal 2012 budget.
The wish list is fairly vast: Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) wants $11 million to hire more police officers. Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) wants to restore cuts to homeless services, costing $19 million. Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) wants to roll back some $90 million in various tax hikes proposed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
The competing priorities fueled a lengthy and often testy debate, but at its end, there were few clear winners and losers — they will ultimately be judged by Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), who is charged with hammering the various requests into a balanced budget. In the coming days, Brown is likely to sit down with individual council members before issuing a final budget proposal shortly before the initial May 25 vote.
What emerged late Monday is that legislators are expecting their toughest budgetary dilemmas to be solved in June, in the form of upgraded revenue projections due from Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi. Brown estimated that the council could see anywhere from $20 million to $60 million in added revenue once the new numbers are crunched. Evans said the number could be still higher, as much as $90 million.
“It’s way too early,” said Gandhi’s spokesman, David Umansky, declining to address the speculation.
The windfall could pay for cops, roll back tax hikes and restore homeless services. Brown, citing the city’s status in the eyes of Wall Street bond raters, has proposed reserving half of any revenue upgrade to replenish the city’s savings account, which he called his top priority. “I’m not sure if we can help the less fortunate if we have a lower bond rating,” he told his colleagues. “I don’t intend to go back up to Wall Street having made a commitment and not have more money in the reserves.”
Besides the yet-to-materialize accounting boost, the council is pondering other ways to pay for its priorities. A menu presented to members included employee furloughs, raising $4.5 million per day. (D.C. employees are taking four furlough days in the current fiscal year.) Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) has proposed extending the sales tax to armored cars and private investigations and security, which Maryland already taxes, raising $4.9 million — enough to roll back a controversial proposed sales tax on live entertainment. Changes to the way the District treats interest on out-of-state municipal bonds could raise as much as $13.4 million. Also mentioned was an across-the-board reduction to city contracts, which could save $8 million or more, and a freeze on city employee salaries, saving $13 million.
But the most heated debate was reserved for Tommy Wells’s proposal to establish a graduated fee scheme for residential parking passes — $25 for the first car per household; $50 for the second;
$125 $100 for the third. Wells (D-Ward 6) said the $1.4 million that proposal would raise could go toward a number of public transit improvements. But his colleagues, particularly Evans, Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), did not react kindly to the prospect of charging their constituents more to park on the streets in front of their homes — something that’s come to be considered something near a civil right — no matter how much Wells protested that it was good policy.