Tax lien reforms top D.C. Council agenda

September 13, 2013

Chairman Phil Mendelson will gavel the D.C. Council back to work Monday. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council gets back to work Tuesday after a two-month break from its lawmaking duties. An attempt to override the mayoral veto of the large-retailer “living wage” bill is likely to garner the most attention next week, but legislators will be dealing with several other notable measures — including reforms to the city’s system for collecting delinquent property taxes recently highlighted in a Washington Post investigative series.

The main reform measure is being proposed by Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who first introduced legislation to reform the tax sale process last year but has not yet moved the bill forward. His emergency measure on Tuesday’s agenda will cancel the sales of properties owned by senior citizens, veterans or the disabled; cap attorney’s fees on tax-sale cases at $1,500; and provide that no properties owing the city less than $2,000 are auctioned in the first place. The measure also allows a property owner to recover his or her equity should a tax sale proceed to foreclosure.

The bill, like all emergency legislation, is effective for 90 days and requires the votes of nine of 13 members. Several members have already expressed support for various provisions included in the bill. Evans said he will pursue permanent legislation in short order.

Also proposing an emergency bill related to the tax sales is Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who wants city financial officials to conduct a “broad review” of tax sales dating back to 2003 “to determine if there is excusable neglect or other equitable circumstances warranting relief.” Under the bill, the internal watchdog for the Office of the Chief Financial Officer would be required to report to the council by Dec. 1 on, among other things, whether the owners of properties sold off over tax bills of $2,500 or less “should be granted relief, and, if relief is recommended, the equitable remedy that would provide substantial justice.”

“We need a sense of how many people were injured, the costs associated with remedying those injuries, and a plan to effect those remedies,” Cheh said in a statement.

The council will take up a host of other emergency measures, according to a draft agenda circulated Friday:

• UberX legalization. Cheh and David Grosso (I-At Large) are offering a measure that would keep Uber’s lower-cost UberX car service, as well as smartphone-based ridesharing services like Lyft and Sidecar, street legal at least until January, when a D.C. Taxicab Commission panel would be required to make recommendations on new regulations. The bill sets aside rules passed by the commission earlier this summer that made the UberX business model illegal.

Visitor parking passes. Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), joining with Cheh, is moving to preserve the status quo on visitor parking permits following an uproar over a new system announced by the city transportation department. The existing program — where residents in some areas are automatically sent free visitor passes, while residents of other neighborhoods are not — “recognizes that different Wards and neighborhoods have different parking needs,” Bowser said in a memo. The proposed system — which would allow all residents to request a free pass from the city — “would end this tailored approach for a clumsy, ‘one-size fits all’ policy,” she added.

• ANC exception to ethics disclosures. Bowser is proposing an emergency amendment to the ethics overhaul her committee wrote in 2011, excepting advisory neighborhood commissioners from rigorous financial disclosures. She explains in a memo: “The role of ANC Commissioners is fundamentally different than the role of Councilmembers or high-ranking officials. ANC Commissioners don’t vote or effect policy or decision-making in the same, direct way as do other public officials. Moreover, the nature of the financial disclosure requirement may deter ANC Commissioners — who are volunteers — from continuing to serve.”

• “Living wage” measures. Besides the decisive vote on the Large Retailer Accountability Act, council members could vote on two emergency measures proposed by Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), a key LRAA backer. One creates a tax credit for the retailers targeted in the bill vetoed by Gray, reimbursing them $1,000 for every District employee paid at least $12.50 an hour in wages and benefits, but with a yearly income of less than $50,000. The other is a sense-of-the-council endorsement of a hike to the federal minimum wage, which would have no practical effect except to possibly influence the congressional debate.

• Traffic camera moratorium. Orange is also renewing his efforts to place curbs on automated traffic enforcement. In June, he introduced the “Automated Traffic Enforcement Moratorium Act of 2013,” which would restrict where cameras could be placed and would require warning signs in the cameras’ vicinity. Orange’s emergency bill comes as the D.C. police are in the process of rolling out new types of enforcement cameras, including red-light cameras and block-the-box cameras. “Unless immediate action is taken by the Council, the Executive will continue to increase the number of automated traffic enforcement units with impunity,” Orange warned his colleagues in a Thursday memo.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis | September 13, 2013