By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
The D.C. Council approved Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's $5.7 billion spending plan for fiscal 2009 yesterday after inserting several amendments, including doubling the cigarette tax to $2 and keeping Klingle Road closed in Rock Creek Park.
There was little discussion about the long list of changes designed to stay within the mayor's conservative budget -- which increased 0.7 percent from the current year -- but also meet the council's goals. The council spent just two hours in yesterday's meeting, mostly explaining some of the budget highlights. "Unbelievable," a few council members said after the meeting.
Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) navigated competing interests -- often behind the scenes -- to fill a $35 million budget shortfall, provide $18 million for after-school and arts programs, secure $18 million for school modernization and find $21 million to give small businesses tax relief.
"He is a consensus builder," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).
But Fenty's administration was not entirely happy, particularly with the public safety budget. The council stripped $6 million from unused salaries of vacant positions to help pay for the small-business tax break. The council also cut more than $800,000 from video surveillance that links thousands of city-owned cameras -- a program that civil libertarians have said invades privacy.
Pushed by Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), the council also inserted language that prohibits the administration from taking further steps with the program until Fenty (D) submits rules to the council for approval. So far, more than 4,000 cameras are being monitored from one site. Ultimately, the city wants about 5,600 cameras linked.
The camera program "will continue as it currently operates," said Fenty spokeswoman Carrie Brooks. "Although some of the funding for the program will be cut, we are confident that the program will save even more taxpayer dollars while maximizing public safety opportunities."
Under the revised budget, a tax on property transfers will nearly triple to 2.9 percent, generating about $8 million for the budget. The tax applies largely to commercial real estate interests.
Taxes on health maintenance organizations will also rise to help pay for the city's version of universal health care, Healthy DC, meant to insure residents who earn too much to qualify for public assistance but not enough to obtain private insurance.
But others will see tax breaks. In addition to the tax cut for small businesses, low-income workers will benefit from a $200 increase in the earned income tax credit. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) requested $150,000 for Capital Area Asset Builders to spread information about the tax credit to those who might qualify.
The outreach effort was part of a lengthy roll of nonprofits and social service agencies that will get earmarks as big as $10 million, for Ford's Theatre, and as small as $10,000, for the Friends of the Hillcrest Recreation Center. In his original budget, Fenty doled out the $10 million to Ford's and divvied up more than $13 million among 40 other groups. Some nonprofits had questioned the earmark for Ford's because it is a federally funded downtown attraction.
The revised budget added another $13 million to the cause, plucked from reserve funds.
The earmarks stirred some conversation on the dais. Gray said this was the last year for such noncompetitive grants. Next year, groups will have to submit more extensive records, including tax returns, to be considered for the one-time grants. They will also be subject to random audits.
Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) said that she had been reluctant to approve the budget because of the earmarks but that plans for next year changed her mind. "I do see some end in sight," she said.
But council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) defended the use of earmarks, which he said "have become something of a dirty word." Earmarks can bypass the city's inadequate contracting and procurement agency, which can delay a nonprofit group doing the work it needs to do, he said.
It was Klingle Road NW that drew the most debate yesterday, though just three council members favored reopening the route. Graham, Schwartz and council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) failed to sway their colleagues to stick with Fenty's plan to use $2 million to reopen the road, which has been closed for 17 years.
Two weeks ago, the council's Committee on Public Works and the Environment voted 3 to 2 to recommend that the council reject Fenty's plan and transfer the $2 million to repair alleys. It was a coup by council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who has made environmental issues a priority, and reversed a 2003 council vote to reopen the road.
Graham, who heads the committee, immediately scrambled to hold a public hearing on the issue and then offered the plan again yesterday. The vote was 10 to 3.
Catania ended the debate by saying that he respected advocates for both sides but that it was time to put the long fight over the 0.7-mile road to rest. "We have more serious challenges in this city than this tiny road," he said.
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.