Saving D.C. Services

Monday, January 5, 2009

AS ONE OF its last acts of last year, the D.C. Council voted to raise parking meter rates. Not only is higher-priced parking good public policy, but council members wanted to raise money to restore social programs hit by budget cuts. Now more bad news about the District's finances threatens the funding of those programs. It's more urgent than ever that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and council members work together to protect the safety net for the city's most vulnerable residents.

The latest revenue forecast from Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi shows the city facing a budget deficit of $127 million. Mr. Gandhi's announcement comes a month after the council already eliminated $131 million in spending, including cuts to affordable housing, cash assistance programs and other services for low-income residents. It was some of those cuts that council members had hoped to restore with the new parking revenue.

So among the questions facing the council is whether the parking revenue can be used to restore the cuts or must be dedicated to balancing the budget. A broad-based coalition of nonprofits, labor groups, businesses and advocacy groups argues that some cutbacks in the safety net could lead to increased costs by increasing hardship and creating the need for more costly emergency services. Indeed, the money to be raised by the parking rate increases is relatively small, some $10 million; it would not help the deficit much, but it could mean a lot to the programs that were cut.

What's undeniable is that hard choices face the mayor and the council in closing this fiscal year's gap and dealing with an even larger problem next year. Mr. Fenty's administration realizes that it will have to go deeper than eliminating empty jobs, and it's currently scrubbing the budget with an eye toward scrapping programs that can't be justified. Officials might want to follow the lead of other jurisdictions that, faced with similar bad economics, are furloughing workers, delaying tax relief or seeking new revenue sources. Nothing should be off the table, but we would hope that important initiatives, like the reform of schools, are protected as much as possible.

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