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Williams Steers Cash to Renewal

Windfall Allows Relief on Taxes

By Lori Montgomery and Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page A01

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams laid out yesterday an expansive $4.9 billion budget brimming with extra cash to attract jobs and development to blighted neighborhoods while rebuilding schools, renovating libraries and fixing roads across the city, including those in its neglected commercial corridors.

With robust tax revenue and a record $1.2 billion in reserve, Williams proposes to spend more than $500 million on new programs and services. He would fund day care for 1,200 children on a city waiting list, job training for 800 chronically unemployed residents and a campaign to lure businesses to the District's historic boulevards, such as Georgia Avenue NW and the eastern reaches of Pennsylvania Avenue.

2006 Proposal

For the first time in his six-year tenure, the mayor's budget calls for "significant broad and progressive tax relief" with specific benefits for poor and disabled homeowners burdened by skyrocketing property taxes.

"This budget funds ground-breaking initiatives that will reshape the physical landscape of the District of Columbia and strengthen our social fabric in a fiscally responsible and balanced manner," Williams (D) wrote in a letter to D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D).

Some council members said the budget also might reflect an effort to reshape the city's political landscape. Months after D.C. Council elections were dominated by voter frustration with the city's growing economic divide, Williams has proposed a budget that addresses major campaign issues, including gentrification, affordable housing and the need to attract business and development to neglected parts of the city.

Williams, who has not announced whether he will seek a third term in 2006, said politics played no part in his budget decisions.

"It's a response to the concerns I've heard from people. It's a response to the opportunity I've seen. It's a response to the occasion that's before us to really do things differently," Williams said. "Now, that happens to be consistent with some of the political trends . . . . But it's a coincidence. It's not a direct response to that."

Council members applauded the mayor three times during a noon briefing at the John A. Wilson Building. They thanked him for visiting their offices and seeking their advice on how to spend the District's newfound wealth.

"Welcome to the 2006 budget lovefest, the first of its kind," Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) said jokingly.

In addition to Williams's own initiatives, his budget would fund pet projects for almost every council member, including a plan promoted by Cropp to aid residents raising their grandchildren and a domestic violence fund championed by Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large).

Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), a potential candidate for mayor who in recent weeks has been the target of the mayor's ire, won full funding for a senior wellness center. Even Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), historically one of Williams's harshest critics, issued a statement praising the mayor for a budget that "begins to address some of the serious unmet needs in Ward 8" and "reflects a substantial departure from some of Mayor Williams' previous budgets."

"I think they did a pretty good job of identifying concerns and issues that were priorities of the council," Cropp said. "Now we have to see if we're in agreement on the specifics of how to address them."

At the council's direction, the mayor's budget would permit baseline spending for core city services to rise by about 4.7 percent in the fiscal year that begins in October. But because of unexpectedly strong revenue and huge cash reserves, the mayor decided the District has "a tremendous opportunity" to make major investments in long-neglected areas. His proposal would spend $150 million in anticipated surplus revenue, as well as $467 million that otherwise would go unused in reserve funds.

In addition to providing tax relief, the mayor proposes to revitalize nine neighborhoods that have high rates of poverty, crime and unemployment, starting with Sursum Corda. By borrowing against the District's housing production trust fund, the city would build mixed-income housing and provide intensive social services.

The budget would fund job training for adults and 10,000 summer jobs for D.C. students ages 14 to 21 who stay in school. And it would require city contractors to pay workers a "living wage," defined as $10.50 per hour or $9.25 per hour for jobs with health benefits.

An extra $8.3 million would go to the University of the District of Columbia, and libraries would get $8.2 million so they can stay open 52 hours a week.

Some council members said they will oppose Williams's plan to use the housing production trust fund to remake Sursum Corda and eight other blighted neighborhoods. Others said they will push for additional tax relief.

Fenty questioned whether Williams will have the focus to make his budget promises a reality. "These things are being said here on paper, but one of the big problems is follow-through. You really have to have engaged management," he said.

Still, enthusiasm permeated the Wilson Building as council members celebrated the first bountiful budget since the 1990s, when the District plunged into debt.

Cropp and council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) reminisced about the desperate measures required to restore the District to financial health.

"The mayor did a great job on the budget," Evans said. "But you know what the bottom line is? It's nice to have money again."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company