D.C. Council chief’s budget: Higher taxes and fees out, housing and school needs in

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown has ruled out higher taxes and fees in next year’s city budget but plans to spend more than $20 million to build and provide affordable housing while allocating millions of dollars to modernize several middle schools.

On Tuesday, the council is expected to cast the first of two votes on Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s proposed fiscal 2013 budget. Gray’s spending plan cuts millions of dollars from human service programs and expands the use of traffic cameras to raise revenue.

In preparation for the council vote, Brown (D) finalized his budget priorities Monday night, signaling affordable housing as a cornerstone of his plan.

The council traditionally embraces much of the chairman’s budget proposal, although a majority could vote to amend it. And it is unclear whether Brown has the votes to get his proposal passed, but he said he consulted council members.

If approved, Brown’s budget sets the stage for later bar hours near holidays and provides more money to promote tourism, establishes permanent tax breaks to help spur economic development along Pennsylvania Avenue SE, and offers additional funding for library books and the arts.

Under the plan, a draft of which was reviewed by The Washington Post on Monday, the District will inject $18 million into a fiscally stressed fund created in 1989 to build and retain housing units for low- and moderate-income D.C. residents.

“This $18 million is just going to be incredible in terms of the housing stock,” Brown said. “This is going to release hundreds and hundreds of affordable units.”

Brown’s effort comes as advocates have become increasingly alarmed at the rate at which previously affordable units are being converted into market-rate housing.

Along with an investment in the Housing Production Trust Fund, Brown also wants to spend $4 million to boost funding for a city program that helps homeless families transition from temporary to long-term housing. He said his plans designate an additional $2.5 million for the Housing Purchase Assistance Program, which offers interest-free loans and closing-cost assistance to qualified buyers.

On Monday night, as Brown’s staff rushed to finalize his budget proposal, it was not immediately clear what other programs he would cut to pay for his spending priorities. He said the affordable housing funding largely comes from deferred spending on new parks for the emerging NoMa (north of Massachusetts Avenue) neighborhood on the northeastern fringe of downtown.

He said Gray planned to sell a city-owned office building near the heart of NoMa for about $18 million. That money was to be used on parks and other improvements in the growing area.

While social-service advocates will probably applaud his stress on affordable housing, he does not restore Gray’s $5 million cut to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program or the $7 million reduction in services for the homeless. The programs are on a list for future funding.

Instead, Brown found $2.6 million to fund his initiative requiring high school students to study for and take a college-preparation test and apply to at least one college before graduation. Some of the money also will go toward another Brown project, which requires schools to better identify potential learning disabilities in students in grades 4 through 9.

“We want to make sure they are high school ready,” said Brown, whose spending plan includes money for two refurbished middle schools in Ward 5, one in Ward 6 and another in Ward 8.

Brown is proposing $2.1 million for new books in libraries, $6.8 million for arts grants, and the “renovation of over 20 neighborhood playgrounds in all eight wards” as well as a new dog park in Ward 4, according to a summary of the budget.

When Gray unveiled his budget in February, he included a controversial proposal to extend bar hours by one hour, to 3 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends, to raise $3.6 million in city revenue. But the Human Services Committee, which has oversight over alcohol issues, rejected the proposal amid intense community opposition.

Brown, however, said he has worked out a compromise in which bars and nightclubs will be able to serve alcohol until 4 a.m. on the night before all 11 federal and D.C. holidays. The city will also permit extended alcohol sales until 4 a.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends and when New Year’s Eve and July 4 fall on a Monday or weekend.

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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