On Saturday, the District’s new fiscal year began, meaning a host of new fees and taxes and the inauguration of some new organs of government. The calendar change also marks a milestone — the 10th anniversary of the disbanding of the financial control board.
Quick history lesson: The control board, aka the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, was a five-member panel chartered by Congress in 1995 to manage city finances after the city found itself on the brink of default. After balancing five yearly budgets, the control board went dormant after the 2001 fiscal year.
In January, I wrote about the control board’s legacy — not only its effect on city management, but its continuing role in our political discourse:
The financial control board might be gone, but the prospect that it could be resurrected is figuring prominently with some city officials.
“The grim reaper is at the door, and, frankly, I will not sit here and be a part of any exercise that results in having a control board come back to the District of Columbia,” said Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) before a vote on a measure to close the city’s budget gap in December, when he was still D.C. Council chairman.
D.C. officials estimate that the coming budget will have a shortfall that could reach $600 million. Although the city is much stronger economically and has balanced its budget every year since 1997, elected officials have not been shy in bringing up the past. The scale of the fiscal challenge is reminiscent of the $722 million budget deficit that led to the control board’s creation. A new Republican majority in the House has also stirred memories.
In the months since, the control board talk has quieted down a bit, as the civic malaise has turned away from financial matters toward government ethics. But it is still a fine time to reflect on how far the city has come in a decade and where it might go in another decade.
Consider this passage from the Post report published just over 10 years ago, ahead of the control board’s final meeting:
Six years later, a strong semblance of municipal normalcy has returned. The control board leaves a city with its credit rating restored, its federal loans repaid and its budget balanced for four consecutive years. New residents have descended on upscale neighborhoods and crowded restaurants and nightclubs. Tree plantings and trash collection follow regular schedules. The rhetoric of fiscal caution and management reform now permeates the city’s political culture.
But some of the control board’s most ambitious efforts, including its takeover of the city’s public schools, are widely viewed as failures. Procurement and personnel flaws outlasted the board’s interventions. And experts say the city’s fragile fiscal recovery could be imperiled by economic jolts like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which have devastated the city’s tourism and hospitality industries. The District also has to contend with long-standing constraints on its tax base and persistent problems in financial management and controls.