The D.C. Council on Tuesday unanimously rejected more than $17 million in popular programs proposed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray because of the would-be source of funding: an already strapped trust fund for retiree health-care costs.
The decision left Gray (D) with no immediate way to fund several proposals for new or expanded city services, including the first planned replacement of all residential trash cans in a decade.
Gray’s ambitious plans come at a time when his newly launched campaign for reelection is getting off the ground. With the city’s Democratic primary fast approaching after the holidays, the vote Tuesday was one of many entangled in politics.
Separately, over the heated objections of council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), who also is running for mayor, the council shut down an attempt by Orange’s biggest campaign contributor to win a $33 million contract to service city parking meters.
Orange’s colleagues suggested that he was lobbying on behalf of a contributor, and the heated exchange that followed highlighted the council’s checkered record on ethics — a driving tension in the city’s April 1 primary.
Outsider candidates and those running on promises of reform fired off e-mail news releases and tweets as the hearing unfolded, criticizing Orange and pointing out how many members of the council over the past two years had been indicted or resigned.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said from the dais that the effort to derail the bid had the “appearance of corruption.”
All four council members running for mayor seized on the last televised hearing of the year to play to unions and other potential voting blocs.
Council members and mayoral candidates Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) co-introduced a bill they said would give retroactive cost-of-living increases to 3,700 police officers and 1,700 firefighters mired in contract negotiations with Gray’s administration.
Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) proposed giving teenagers free Metro rides to summer jobs and expanding employment options for city youths.
Orange filed legislation to give teachers tax breaks, plus a bill sought by the flight attendants’ union: a resolution condemning potential action by the Federal Aviation Administration to allow the use of cellphones on airplanes.
Without debate, the council gave final approval to a plan to raise the city’s minimum wage to $11.50 by 2016 and to index it thereafter to inflation. Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have adopted similar legislation.
The city’s first wage bump, to $9.50 an hour, will be in July, and Gray, who had proposed a smaller overall increase to $10, said this week that he would sign the council’s bill. A study of the minimum wage his administration has ordered will proceed nonetheless, Gray said, noting “There’s certainly room for amendments” at a later date.
The council’s decision to unanimously rebuff Gray on the $17 million in new spending has the potential to be felt citywide.
Last month, Gray held a news conference in which he promised to begin replacing all of the city’s 75,000 residential “supercans” next year as well as increase the size of recycling cans for most households.
The $9 million effort was the largest of 11 proposed budget items that included expanded transportation services for senior citizens and more funding for youth court.
All of the programs would have been funded with money previously earmarked for the city’s retiree health-care fund.
Gray’s office has said that the fund performed well recently with the rising stock market, justifying his proposal to decrease the city’s mandatory contribution next year to about $90 million, down from more than $107 million.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said the reduced obligation was based on changed actuarial assumptions that make the fund’s accounting more liberal than that for the pension fund for the city’s police officers, firefighters and teachers.
Also, as of September 2012, the health-care fund was underfunded by about $226 million, a 25 percent shortfall. The city is on a 30-year schedule to close the gap.
“It’s not about what this spending is for — some of these are laudable goals,” Mendelson said. “It’s about where the money would be coming from.”
The council agreed and left Gray’s plans in limbo.
Mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro criticized the move, saying Mendelson’s concerns were unfounded. “The CFO has said the health fund is solvent and actuarially sound,” Ribeiro said.
“We’re shocked the council would vote against one of the most requested items D.C. residents call their government for,” he said. “It’s ‘Supercan, Supercan, Supercan’ ” — he said, citing the nickname for the oversized 96-gallon cans used in most parts of the city.
In the closely watched parking meter debate, the council voted 11 to 2 to approve a $33 million, five-year contract with Xerox to manage and eventually upgrade the city’s parking meters.
The vote took on sharply political dimensions as some members used the vote to question possible “pay-to-play” practices and, in some cases, question entirely the council’s role in approving large contracts.
The debate concerned attempts by Orange to derail the contract award, adopting objections lodged by a losing bidder, Rockville-based WorldWide Parking — which has accounted for a quarter of Orange’s campaign fundraising to date in his current mayoral bid.
Orange assailed the contract in a closed-door briefing Friday and in an open hearing Monday. He renewed his objections on the council dais Tuesday, saying WorldWide’s bid could have saved the city millions of dollars that could be devoted to other purposes.
Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairwoman of the transportation committee, accused Orange of “muddying the waters” by throwing out questionable pricing numbers and raising concerns that had already been dismissed by the city’s Contracts Appeals Board.
Cheh alluded to the company’s recent campaign contributions and warned her colleagues to be wary of vendors who throw contract disputes into the political arena.
“Are we to be the Supreme Court of the Contract Appeals Board?” she asked. “I think not.”
Orange’s acceptance of contributions from WorldWide and other related firms sparked a broader discussion about “pay-to-play” practices.
Grosso, who has refrained from voting on contract approvals in his first year on the council, voted in favor of the Xerox award, saying he wanted to make a statement against improper political meddling.
Orange bristled at the suggestion he was doing WorldWide’s bidding in return for campaign donations, accusing his colleagues of being a “no-look council” that has neglected its oversight duties. “I cannot be bought for contributions,” he said. “And anyone who thinks otherwise, you’re on another planet.”
Two other council members who are running for mayor and received significant contributions from WorldWide and affiliated entities — Bowser and Evans — both voted to approve the contract. Only Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) joined Orange in opposition.
Barry lambasted his colleagues, including Grosso and Wells, who had raised the pay-to-play issue Tuesday: “This council is not for sale. Not for sale! I resent it,” he said.