Emancipation Day funding clash throws Pennsylvania Avenue parade into question


Members of the Ballou High School marching band perform along the parade route on April 16, 2013, in Washington. The parade is in question this year. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Mayoral officials are questioning a D.C. Council member’s spending on Emancipation Day festivities this week, which includes $130,000 for a free concert and $19,000 for balloons, threatening to derail Wednesday’s planned parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The council budgeted $350,000 for this year’s commemoration of the 1862 freeing of slaves in the District — a $100,000 boost over last year. But council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), the city holiday’s founder and patron, wants D.C. agencies to absorb an additional $116,000 in spending for the typically sparsely attended parade, including $79,000 in police and fire department costs.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray is balking at covering those costs, which could leave police and fire departments with less flexibility in deploying officers and firefighters this summer.

“What happened to the $350,000? That’s the real question here,” said Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Gray. “Where did all of the money that was originally budgeted for this event go?”

A top aide to Gray (D) threatened last week to not “provide the adequate public safety and other services necessary to hold the public event as you all have proposed it,” according to e-mails obtained by The Washington Post, which suggest that the parade could be canceled unless the dispute is resolved.

Chief of Staff Christopher K. Murphy sent an e-mail to his counterpart in Orange’s office, James D. Brown, after Brown questioned a cost projection prepared by the city last week that did not waive some charges. It read:

“It was never anticipated . . . that the city would bear costs associated with the day in addition to that $350K — and certainly not the $116K more in expenses you presented me with today,” Murphy wrote Thursday. “Our expectation is that you will use some of that $350K allocation to pay for the city services you seek to utilize.”

Orange said Monday that he intends to proceed with the concert and parade as planned, saying he has secured the necessary approvals and permits from the federal and District governments, including the District’s emergency management agency.

“As of right now,” he said, “everything is a go.”

Brown told Murphy in an e-mail Thursday that $329,000 of the $350,000 budget had already been spent, presumably on other Emancipation Day festivities, including a town hall-style discussion session held Sunday at the Lincoln Theatre, as well as a free Freedom Plaza concert and fireworks show Wednesday evening featuring such acts as Talib Kweli, MC Lyte, Arrested Development and Doug E. Fresh.

Typically, groups planning special events in the city are required to pay for various costs, including police patrols, emergency medical personnel, fire and health inspections, trash cleanup and more. Government agencies are not considered exempt.

But Orange said that costs for celebrations of Emancipation Day have been waived in the past and that he was notified otherwise only last week. “This is a government holiday; this is not a special event someone is putting on,” he said. “If that precedent was going to change, that should have been brought forward earlier.”

But Murphy said in his e-mail to Brown that Orange should be aware that waivers for the parade costs are not obligatory. “Every year in recent memory, your office has been told that you are expected to pay for the city services associated with public events like the parade. And I know CM Orange knows this very well. In the past he has refused to pay. When other event organizers have not paid their bills in the past, we have not been able to provide city services until they do,” he wrote.

Orange — who recently concluded a mayoral run against Gray, garnering 2 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary this month — disputed that characterization and said he would question city officials on the funding tiff at an April 30 council hearing.

Emancipation Day has been a public holiday in the District since 2005, when then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) signed legislation championed by Orange. District government employees have the day off, but few others do, which means crowds at the weekday parade and concert have always been relatively thin.

Last year, the $250,000 spent on the festivities included nearly $80,000 to book gospel musician Kirk Franklin and $25,000 for a fireworks show. Orange said last year that the funding boost would attract bigger-name talent: “If you can get Beyoncé into town, you will have everybody in town,” he said.

A tentative budget submitted to the council, dated March 18, shows planned expenditures of nearly $400,000 — $100,000 on the concert acts alone, with an additional $27,500 earmarked for fireworks, $19,000 for parade balloons and $12,200 to transport participants to the parade route. Orange said he plans to bus as many as 500 schoolchildren downtown Wednesday.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said Monday the budget has since been reduced to meet the $350,000 target. It covers the costs for some agencies, he said, but not others, such as the police and fire departments. “There was no indication we would receive bills from them until last week,” he said.

Ribeiro said that the Gray administration would not agree to waive any of the parade costs until Orange provides details of how the funds already budgeted have been spent. While some permit fees and other minor costs could be absorbed, he said, the overtime expenses could not.

“The police folks, they need to be paid; the fire folks, they need to be paid,” Ribeiro said. “We want to see where the $350,000 has gone.”

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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