Much of D.C. Windfall Directed to Schools

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The D.C. Council will likely add $26.4 million to rebuild school buildings and pay for teacher salary increases when it considers the District's 2006 budget today, according to interviews with several legislators.

In a series of closed-door meetings during the past week, council members finalized changes to Mayor Anthony A. Williams's proposed budget and parceled out an additional $40 million in new revenue for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. If approved by the council today, the $4.94 billion spending plan will to go Congress for approval.

Council members said they have agreed to add $10 million to fund Chairman Linda W. Cropp's plans for an expansive school renovation program and $16.4 million for teacher pay increases. But school supporters say the extra money is not enough to forestall the possibility of 306 staff cuts in schools. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) said she will offer an amendment today asking for an additional $15 million.

Cropp's measure would allocate $10 million in new revenue toward debt service for new schools and libraries. That amount would finance $100 million in capital improvements, she said. The legislation would also encourage the school system to dispose of surplus property and consolidate uses in underutilized schools for libraries and recreation centers.

Council members restored cuts that were opposed by Williams (D). The new plan, for instance, puts back $1 million to hire caseworkers for the city's Child and Family Services Agency, a cut that was criticized by the mayor and a federal judge monitoring the city's foster care system.

The council also used surplus money to restore $4 million to the Housing Authority police force without raising the city's 911 service fee.

Several council members said the full council will keep intact Williams's $94 million plan of property and income tax relief but did not embrace further cuts, such as reducing the cap on property tax increases from 12 to 5 percent.

"There's no money left for additional tax relief," said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). "The consensus is to spend the money."

While those council members who favor spending over tax cuts appear to have won the first round, Evans and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) have pledged to continue pushing for tax relief.

One plan would be to use future surpluses to reduce the city's cap on property tax increases from 12 to 10 percent and reduce the city's tax rate 4 cents per $100 assessed valuation, Mendelson said.

The city's humming economy and real estate market have made budget deliberations this year the easiest since the dark days of the mid-1990s, when a control board ran the city's finances, Williams said recently.

The budget includes an additional $431,000 for council staff pay raises, in an effort to bring compensation to parity with the executive branch, Cropp said recently.

Evans, chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee, said he found little support for tax reduction among his colleagues during closed-door sessions on the surplus $40 million that began last week and concluded yesterday morning.

Adding money to ongoing programs could create "huge expenditures, and somewhere down the road, we can't afford it," he said.

For that reason, Williams has pushed to have any additional surplus go to one-time capital projects, such as road paving.

But to some council members, who represent neighborhoods with crumbling schools, few amenities and a laundry list of postponed priorities, Williams's call for road paving was greeted literally with laughs.

Still, with city revenue flowing strongly and legislators expecting more good times ahead, there were few objections that couldn't be overcome. Williams even got his additional funds for road paving -- $8 million out of the $40 million in new spending.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company