D.C. Council snubs Fenty's plan to raise fines and fees

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

In a defiant move, D.C. Council members refused Tuesday to vote on a proposal by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to raise or impose 680 fees or fines to help close a $550 million budget gap.

Apparently worried about the looming city election, members instead said they want Fenty to use his executive powers to raise the fees and fines without their consent so he faces the political consequences.

"Let me be clear: This is the mayor's proposal, not mine," said Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who is challenging Fenty in the September Democratic primary for mayor. "I don't take responsibility for this."

In a statement Tuesday night, Fenty said his "administration will immediately comply with the council's vote to have the executive implement proposed fee/fine increases by regulation."

To help close the $550 million budget gap, Fenty has proposed requiring residents to pay more for hundreds of categories of business licenses, building permits and corporate filing fees. His plan would also increase more than 75 fines for traffic infractions, some of which could more than triple.

"Make no bones about it, this is a tax increase," said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a Fenty ally. "You can call a duck a chicken, but it's still a duck."

The council was expected to take up the proposal as part of the fiscal 2011 budget it plans to vote on next week. But Gray said the administration recently asked him to hold an "emergency" vote this week on the fees and fines so they could take effect June 1.

The increases would generate $7 million for the rest of fiscal 2010 and $21 million in fiscal 2011, which begins Oct. 1.

But council members revolted when the legislation came up for a vote. Members accused Fenty of trying to "nickel-and- dime" residents with fee increases instead of making tough choices about taxes and spending.

The fine for driving with obstructed vision, for example, would increase from $15 to $75. The fine for failing to come to a complete stop before turning would increase from $50 to $100. Motorists who do not use a turn signal would be subject to a $100 fine, up from $25. A driver who is ticketed for exceeding the speed limit by 15 mph or less would be fined $125 instead of $50. The fine for driving too slowly would be $50 instead of $15.

"Some of this is astronomical," said council member Kwame Brown (D-At Large). "I know we have to make some tough choices, but I think there has to be a better way."

Despite their hesitancy, council members appeared ready to vote for the fee increases because they said the city needs the money. However, a few minutes before the final vote, council members grew irritated when their general counsel told them Fenty could enact many of the proposed fee increases through rule-making that did not require council approval.

Fearing Fenty was trying to force them to vote on a potentially unpopular proposal, council members voted unanimously to table the legislation.

Instead of acting, the council put the issue back before the mayor, allowing members to distance themselves from the fees and fines on the campaign trail. But it's unclear whether Fenty can enact regulations in time for the fees to take effect by June 1.Either way, it appears likely that many fines and fees will increase starting sometime this summer or fall.

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