“We have established a sterling track record that I think he will continue,” he said.
The nomination to replace longtime CFO Natwar M. Gandhi, which must be approved by the D.C. Council, comes after a seven-month search in which a list of dozens of candidates was whittled to four finalists.
DeWitt, 52, was named Phoenix’s chief financial officer in 2009 after working in various city financial positions for 20 years, according to a résumé provided by the Gray administration.
At Thursday’s news conference, DeWitt described guiding Phoenix through a crisis that reached its peak soon after his ascension to CFO there, decimating the city’s housing market and eroding nearly half of the city’s property tax base.
“Suddenly you’ve got 25 percent cuts that are required,” he said. “You learn a lot through that process.”
The Phoenix city budget, DeWitt said, is now at “1970 levels” on a per-capita basis, and while he said he saw no reason the District should require such austerity, he said he was committed to fiscal rigor.
“There are times you have to say no because of the financial situations of government,” he said, adding that “sometimes ‘no’ means there’s another way to achieve the same goal.”
Gandhi, who has held the office since 2000 and has been hailed for rehabilitating the city’s finances and helping repair its reputation on Wall Street and Capitol Hill, said he knew DeWitt from conferences of government finance officials and called him an “inspired choice.”
“I’m entirely confident that Jeff would be a superlative CFO and take the city to the next level of financial credibility and stability,” he said.
This year, the District posted a $417 million budget surplus for the previous fiscal year, and some recent bond issues have received top ratings on Wall Street.
However, a series of controversies have battered the reputation of Gandhi and, in particular, his tax office in recent years — including questions about unreleased internal audits, his handling of a major lottery contract and, most recently, the practice of selling property tax debts to private investors.
Gandhi announced his retirement in late January, citing personal reasons for departing months after securing a third five-year term.
In February, Gray appointed former mayor Anthony A. Williams and former federal budget director Alice M. Rivlin to lead a search for Gandhi’s replacement.
Gray said Thursday that he considered DeWitt’s experience navigating the economic downturn to be “hugely important” in his decision, citing the uncertain impact federal budget cuts might have on the District’s economy.
“You’ve already started to see an increase in the unemployment rate,” he said. “We have created 23,200 new jobs, private-sector jobs, since we started, but we’re just struggling to keep up. He’s going to have to manage within that environment.”
DeWitt received unreserved plaudits from top officials in Phoenix city government on Thursday.
Mayor Greg Stanton said elected officials in the city of 1.4 million have maintained confidence in DeWitt’s projections. “He’s the kind of guy I could call late at night and talk budget issues,” he said. “He would definitely tell it to me straight.”
Ed Zuercher, an assistant city manager, credited DeWitt with softening the fiscal blow from the housing meltdown. When the city was facing a $277 million budget deficit, he said, DeWitt orchestrated a debt refinancing that saved the city about $100 million, helping to avoid service cuts and tax increases.
“He’s very, very smart when it comes to financing and refinancing indebtedness,” Zuercher said. “With his expertise we didn’t have to do as much. That was really important.”
Gray’s choice of an outsider — DeWitt is an Illinois native with no significant ties to the District or its leaders — breaks a string of financial leadership that stretches back to the federal control board that oversaw city spending from 1995 to 2001. Williams served as the city’s first independent chief financial officer during that period, then as mayor nominated former deputy Gandhi for the post after Valerie Holt left midway through her term in 2000.
Eric W. Price, a former D.C. deputy mayor who served on the search panel, said DeWitt distinguished himself by coming to a meeting with the panel “extremely well prepared.”
“He had looked into our budget,” he recalled. “He was talking about our cost of capital and what our depreciation was. We just were really impressed at how he went down into the weeds.”
Other finalists, Price said, had more experience in the city, and the search panel questioned DeWitt extensively on that subject. “He stressed, without us prompting him, that you have to get the community engaged, and that’s key in the District,” he said. “You can’t just sit at your desk, and Jeff understood that.”
City officials said salary discussions were not final, but DeWitt said he expects to be paid about $250,000 a year. His salary in Phoenix is $176,000; Gandhi makes about $200,000. The higher salary will require Congress to amend the District’s charter.
DeWitt said Thursday that he is prepared to move to the District and begin work within 30 days. A hearing on his nomination is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 23, said Jack Evans, chairman of the D.C. Council’s finance and revenue committee, with a council vote possible as early as Nov. 5.
Evans (D-Ward 2) said he remained skeptical about a nominee with so little experience in the city but was “cautiously optimistic” after meeting with DeWitt on Thursday afternoon. “Part of me thinks that having a fresh set of eyes might be helpful here,” he said. “Maybe we can figure out why we’re spending so much money.”
Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.