Back in 2004, Mayor Anthony A. Williams had a problem: He needed the D.C. Council to approve the financing of a new baseball stadium to lure a major league team to the city and cement his mayoral legacy. But he stood a few votes short.
The solution was something called the Community Benefits Fund, which would collect additional tax money generated by ballpark-related development. Council members were promised as much as $450 million in library construction, neighborhood development incentives and schools funding — a bit of horse-trading that was enough to cinch several swing votes in favor of building a stadium.
Today, the D.C. government is on the cusp of breaking those promises, with Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s proposed budget containing a change that would make it easier for Gray and future mayors to divert the CBF’s money away from the promised benefits.
Under Gray’s budget legislation, the CBF would be “subject to the inclusion of its fiscal effect in an approved budget and financial plan” — meaning that each year, the mayor and council would essentially have to make a decision on whether the money goes to community projects or to other spending priorities.
The Washington Interfaith Network rallied against the proposal Monday morning at the John A. Wilson Building, packing the council chamber and testifying in favor of maintaining the fund’s dedication to community projects.
Amy Vruno, a WIN organizer, said Friday that the timing is unfortunate, because the economy is improving and the CBF is beginning to see significant revenue for the first time. “To eliminate it right at the point when it’s picking up steam stings even more,” she said.
Gray administration officials argue that using the CBF funding stream to maintain city services during a fiscal crunch is indeed a community benefit. And Gray, it should be noted, is not the first mayor to raid the CBF to deal with a tight budget. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, starting with the 2009 budget, took unspent balances in the fund — no more than a few million dollars — to cover other expenses. But that was done on a year-to-year basis; this year, Gray is proposing a more permanent change in order to balance the city’s long-term financial plan. That would make it impossible to float bonds on the CBF revenue stream, which was the basis for the $450 million figure.
Vincent Orange, who is set to be sworn in Tuesday as an at-large council member and who will vote on the budget package, represented Ward 5 on the council when the benefits promise was made. He said the CBF’s inclusion in the deal made the difference in his vote to approve the stadium: “For a lot of us, in a very close vote to make that process happen, it came down to the community benefits,” he said. “I vividly remember the $450 million.”
“To do an about-face does not sit well with me,” Orange added.
At Monday’s D.C. Council hearing, several council members said that the proposed changes to the CBF didn’t sit well with them, either. Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) called the move “a little disingenuous” and said he was “not happy with the way that it’s been done.” Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) said he would make sure the fund survives: “In terms of elimination, we’re very clear on that,” he said.