D.C. Hearing On Budget Packs Drama And Emotion

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 26, 2008

Public testimony over Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's proposed 2009 budget was filled with contention, tears and even mystery yesterday, as more than 40 nonprofit agencies, divvying up about $13.5 million, tried to understand how in these economic times the city could afford to offer the federally funded Ford's Theatre $10 million.

It was compelling political drama as more than 75 people lined up to make their points.

The proposed budget is 0.7 percent more than last year's spending plan, putting pressure on the D.C. Council to find a way to shuffle money when members begin making changes next week. A vote on the $5.7 billion budget is scheduled May 13.

Testimony kicked off in the morning with videotaped statements from three business owners who said they were so hard-pressed by rising tax bills that they couldn't afford to leave their businesses to testify in person at the John A. Wilson Building. It was hyperbole to make a point.

By midday, Carolyn Dallas, executive director of Youth Court, was in tears after struggling to convince council members that the program, which directs juvenile offenders to community service instead of jail, deserved $450,000. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) chided her for failing to establish a board of directors and more sources of funding, pledges she'd made last year when the group requested and received $450,000.

Dallas said her staff of a half-dozen is juggling 1,500 juveniles' cases and has not had time to address those issues. Without the money, the 12-year-old-program will likely fold, she said, sobbing with balled-up tissues in her hand and burying her head into the shoulder of a friend.

Other witnesses represented a variety of social service agencies and nonprofits, including the DC Youth Orchestra Program, the Historical Society of Washington and So Others Might Eat.

Since the budget was proposed last month, community activists and some council members have said they were mystified that Fenty (D) proposed to give Ford's Theatre, site of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, $10 million in city tax dollars. The theater is poised to get the largest chunk of one-time grant money in the budget.

Paul R. Tetreault, the theater's chief executive officer, said that Ford's has a new mission to reach out to city residents through the $30 million Center for Education and Leadership to be built across from the theater. "We are serious about this commitment, and we are prepared to be held accountable for achieving our goals," Tetreault said. "Over the next five years, we intend for our programs to reach at least 75 percent of all [D.C. Public Schools] fifth-, eighth- and 11th-grade students as well as every DCPS fifth- and eighth-grade social studies teacher."

Gray (D) asked Tetreault and Paul Berry, a theater trustee, how the council could explain allocating so much to Ford's. "What's the answer that we tell . . . to the people who get nothing?" Gray asked.

The answer may be behind the scenes. Ford's Theatre, which draws a million visitors annually, has big-time supporters. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) met with Fenty and talked about the city's contribution, among other subjects, said Jim Manley, Reid's spokesman.

Reid's wife, Landra, is a theater trustee.

Fenty said in an earlier interview that Ford's expansion is part of continued efforts to revitalize downtown.

Other people also used connections yesterday. The unusual videotaped statements, which people sitting inside the council chambers could see on new monitors, were put together by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Susan Calloway, who owns a fine arts shop in Georgetown, said in a phone interview that she was filmed Thursday. She had never testified at a hearing before but said she has felt compelled to get involved to help small entrepreneurs. "I love my business, and I work myself to death," she said.

Calloway and other business owners, including a few who appeared in person, want the council to reject Fenty's plan to scale back tax relief that the D.C. Council has already approved. Fenty wants to spread the commercial tax relief over three years to help fill a $96 million budget gap.

Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, testified that the mayor's proposal "splits relief between large and small businesses," which takes away from the idea of helping less-profitable local businesses.

But Lazere said the council should rethink its own plan and give businesses earning a capped amount of money "a tax credit equal to a certain percentage of the taxes they pay." The formula could guarantee that only small businesses benefit, he said.

That recommendation might have satisfied Morton Toole, owner of Capitol Hill Books, who was proud of a review that called his shop the "best messy bookstore" in the city. Toole, who said he was not sure the council's relief plan would be enough to keep his shop open, placed a baseball cap with his store's name on the witness table so that it faced the camera like an advertisement.

Gray commended him for his "interesting" testimony.

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