Council members make waves on budget

Mayoral politics and governance collided Thursday as several potential contenders in next year’s race pushed through major changes to Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s goals.

The moves set the stage for a contentious two weeks as the D.C. Council rushes to complete work on the budget and mayoral hopefuls face a Democratic primary in April.

On Thursday, the council slowed redevelopment projects near the Anacostia River, added money for school librarians, increased the ranks of parking-enforcement officers and raised street-sweeping fines.

With at least four council members considering bids for mayor, the potential candidates are challenging both Gray (D) and one another as they jockey for position.

“Democracy is about elections,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “It is impossible to separate politics from an issue as important as the budget.”

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Education Committee, limited cuts to schools with lower enrollment and added money to ensure that every school with more than 300 students has a full-time librarian.

Catania, who is considering a bid for mayor, also pushed to slash funding for the office of the deputy mayor for education, who serves as Gray’s top liaison for school issues.

The city’s 2007 school-reform law gives the mayor oversight over public education, but Catania has vowed to be an aggressive overseer.

Calling the deputy mayor’s office duplicative and unfocused, Catania persuaded the committee to cut four of 11 staffers from the deputy mayor’s office, for a savings of about $357,000.

“We had to go through [the budget] very strategically, in a calculated way, and make choices,” Catania said.

But Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said Catania’s actions will hamper the mayor’s efforts to combat truancy and foster cooperation between charter and public schools. “If Mr. Catania actually cares about coordination, it makes no sense why he would do that,” Ribeiro said. “It looks to be petty and political.”

Meanwhile, council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) appeared to challenge Gray and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) when she transferred money from two projects near the Anacostia River on Wells’s home turf and diverted a large chunk of it to her political base in Ward 4.

As chairman of the Economic Development Committee, Bowser withheld $8 million for the relocation of D.C. Water storage facilities on industrial land near the Yards. The move would make way for new apartments and a movie theater, but Bowser said it wasn’t clear where the D.C. Water facilities should be located.

Instead, Bowser directed the money to the modernization of Coolidge High School in Northwest, as well as to other projects in Ward 4, including the redevelopment of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus.

Bowser also transferred $3.5 million slated to help plan redevelopment at Poplar Point, an area both Gray and Wells are eyeing for future growth, including perhaps as a future home of the FBI. Bowser directed those funds to Walter Reed.

Bowser, who has announced her candidacy for mayor, is also spending $5 million to restart an Adrian M. Fenty-era Neighborhood Investment Fund that gives grants to neighborhoods. Gray, who has not announced but is said to be considering a run, is largely doing the same thing with his “One City Fund.”

Ribeiro criticized Bowser’s budget decisions, noting the federal government still hasn’t turned over the Walter Reed property to the city. “She is hampering development in other parts of the city to make it look like she is furthering development in her ward,” Ribeiro said.

Next year’s mayoral race also appeared to seep into decisions made Thursday by the Committee on Transportation and the Environment.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairman of the committee, moved her plan to increase fares for the Circulator bus to expand it to Glover Park, U Street, Shaw and Southwest. But Wells, who is considering a run and is trying to burnish his credentials with black voters, questioned why the planned expansion did not include any areas east of the Anacostia River.

“I don’t think we can pass something that leaves out the most bus-reliant transit folks in the city,” said Wells, who teamed with council member David A. Grosso (I-At Large) for an amendment to study adding new routes in wards 5, 7 and 8.

Among other changes, the transportation budget calls for 30 new parking control officers to help boost the number of parking tickets. One of those fines — failure to move for street sweeping — will increase from $30 to $45 under the budget committee-approved budget.

But council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who is also considering a run for mayor, predicted the full council would scrutinize the proposal before giving final approval to the budget later this month. “My neighbors want parking ticket writers to be there, and to ticket out-of-state people,” Evans said. “They do not want parking ticket writers to ticket people who live there.”

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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