D.C. Council revises Gray budget, restores human services funds

The D.C. Council heavily revised Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s proposed $9.4 billion budget for the next fiscal year Tuesday, deciding to restore millions of dollars to human services programs, among other changes.

Several council members praised Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) for leading his colleagues through a series of negotiations with the Gray administration to revise a budget that now has about $25 million in affordable housing programs and that restores $23 million to cover the health care of residents, mostly low-income immigrants, who are ineligible for Medicaid.

The council is scheduled to give final approval on a second reading June 5.

Brown found money for housing programs for low-income and homeless residents by tapping $18 million that the Gray administration said the District would make by selling a city-owned office building in the NoMa (north of Massachusetts Avenue) neighborhood. The money had been designated for parks and other improvements in the area. Brown said it was proof that “affordable housing isn’t just a myth.”

The switch represented a continuing quandary for the city’s elected officials: the needs of low-income residents vs. quality-of-life improvements in rapidly changing communities with wealthier new residents.

Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District, said the community is optimistic that the fairly new Ward 6 neighborhood will eventually get funding for parks.

“We are happy that the funding of parks at NoMa is a priority for the mayor and the chairman and the council, even though we didn’t get this funding that the mayor put in,” she said. “We’re hopeful we’ll get the money through the contingency priority that’s been put in.”

At the council meeting, council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) said that he was opposed to Gray’s original budget because it was balanced on the backs of the poor but that he was heartened by the changes the council made to the budget after lobbying by advocates for low-income residents and some council members.

“We still have a long way to go in terms of our most vulnerable residents, but this is a step in the right direction,” he said.

For example, the D.C. Healthcare Alliance was set to get the single largest cut under the mayor’s proposal. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) and the Gray administration engaged in a back-and-forth on the issue during the past week. But before Tuesday’s budget vote, Catania and the mayor announced that they had struck a compromise.

Catania, chairman of the Committee on Health, said he worked with the mayor’s staff to identify money saved in drug rebates, vacant positions and rate changes in nursing home care.

“The plan addresses my concerns and the concerns we heard from many community organizations while ensuring Alliance beneficiaries will continue to receive critical health-care coverage,” Gray (D) said in a statement.

In another compromise, Kwame Brown scaled back Gray’s plan to raise $3.6 million by extending bar hours by one hour, to 3 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends.

The compromise would extend bar hours to 4 a.m. the night before all District and federal holidays. Alcohol sales would also be extended on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights of the Memorial Day and Labor Day holidays, as well as New Year’s Eve and July 4 if the holidays fall on weekends.

To appease concerns that the extensions would lead to increased drunken driving and noise from neighborhood bars, council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) recommended that the administration study the effects of the hour expansions and issue a report after a year.

Although there was discussion before Tuesday of rejecting the Gray administration’s expansion of traffic cameras and paid public parking to raise revenue, the council left those proposals untouched.

However, Kwame Brown said in an interview that the council is listing a master fee schedule on its Web site, so the public can see how much the city is charging in fees and fines. “I don’t know how many more speed cameras we can possibly get in this city,” he said.

Cheh is planning to hold a summit in the summer to get feedback on “performance parking,” a program that authorizes the Department of Transportation to increase meter rates in certain areas to force more rapid turnover of metered spaces and to generate additional revenue.

Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said this year’s budget vote should send a message to Gray, a former director of human services who has a social services background. “Mayor Gray has been listening to the advocates and council members,” he said. “The 2014 budget should be drastically different.”

However, Gray said in a statement that the budget the council passed included “no new taxes or fees” and “closely tracks my priorities.”

“This budget shows that the District can, and will, live within its means without leaving anyone behind.”

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