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Spending Freeze Added To Cuts
Activists Decry Effect on Poor

By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The D.C. Council voted yesterday to slash the District's budget by more than $130 million and freeze an additional $46 million as the mayor, housing advocates and members of the clergy warned that the city's most vulnerable residents will be disproportionately affected.

Council members unanimously approved reductions to the budget for fiscal 2009, which began Oct. 1, after nearly three hours of line-item tinkering. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) did not attend. This was the final vote on the budget cuts, which take effect immediately.

Many departments and programs will be affected by the council's action, according to a memo from the mayor to the council, which included these examples: A $2 million cut to a rent-subsidy program will keep 130 families, now on a waiting list, from receiving assistance; a $15 million cut to the Department of Transportation will delay work on the 11th Street Bridge; a $1.8 million cut to the Department of Parks and Recreation will prevent improvements to two athletic fields; a $3.3 million cut to public libraries will cost the jobs of student librarians and literacy specialists; and a $1.4 million cut will eliminate funding to digitize police reports.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) had proposed $131 million in cuts -- about 2 percent of the budget's $5.5 billion in locally funded spending -- to close a projected revenue shortfall. The council approved a similar amount in cuts, $130.7 million, but also decided to freeze the spending of $46 million, placing the money in a reserve fund to deal with future revenue gaps. Several programs for low-income residents will not have access to that money for several months at least, officials said.

Council members said the budget cuts were financially sound, if painful, and necessary in a time of economic crisis.

"We have approved a fiscally responsible approach to the District's financial challenges," said D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D).

Fenty had a bleaker assessment of the council's decision to freeze the $46 million.

He said $19 million will be cut from a program for first-time home buyers and $5.6 million will be cut from the city's Housing First program, in which 800 homeless residents were scheduled to be placed in permanent housing.

Gray said money for those programs will be kept in reserve until February. He said the money will be released if the District's tax collections increase and if more money is generated through fees on real estate transactions.

"We're not cutting existing programs," he said. "We are simply not starting new programs to lessen the pain that people will experience."

The mayor said the council's budget will force a $1.5 million cut to the District's program for victims of domestic violence. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) got the council to restore $200,000 by transferring funds from a city program that provides free smoke detectors to residents.

Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) had asked that the council delay the vote and take more time to look for ways to reduce the cuts. But ultimately, he voted for the budget cuts.

Last week, Fenty sent a letter to Gray warning that the $46 million freeze would come at a high price to some of the city's neediest residents, but he issued a statement yesterday saying, "The administration will abide by the council decision."

More than 100 people from the Washington Interfaith Network were in the council chamber yesterday to protest the cuts.

"A majority of the D.C. Council pledged in the past two elections to make permanent supportive housing for the homeless, neighborhood revitalization, homeownership, youth services, their top priority," said the Rev. Lionel Edmonds, co-chairman of the Interfaith Network. He was among several people who walked out in protest before the council meeting was adjourned.

Earlier in the day, advocates for low-income residents demonstrated outside the John A. Wilson Building, saying poor people will bear an unfair share of the budget cuts.

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