By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; B01
The mayor's budget lacks, some of his critics charge, imagination and grit -- ignoring tough decisions and continuing to borrow from the city's already weakened reserve funds to close a $550 million gap.
When the D.C. Council votes on the budget Wednesday, it will make some major changes to the city's 2011 spending plan, including a sales tax on carbonated sugar sodas and on medical marijuana. But members have tabled many proposals for fear that they -- not the mayor -- would be tagged as having increased taxes or made crippling cuts to social service programs.
With Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray challenging Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's reelection bid this year, neither wants to be perceived as the bad guy, causing some to fear that District finances could collapse next year when the shadow of politics lifts from the city budget.
"We are saying it's too onerous to do this year," council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), the chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, said recently about his colleagues' hesitance to discuss major spending reductions or tax increases. "However, next year, at the same time, at this exact place, we are going to have to do it. . . . There is no savings account left."
The city's fiscal condition is guarded at best: anemic revenue projections, concern that too many tax-assessment challenges will be successful and worry that the city's credit rating is in jeopardy because of overspending.
Faced with three years of shrinking tax revenue resulting from the recession, Fenty has laid off hundreds of city workers, cut tens of millions of dollars from programs and raised numerous taxes and fees. But Fenty, who campaigned in 2006 on a pledge not to raise sales or income taxes while increasing school funding, has leaned heavily on the city's reserve funds and money from President Obama's economic stimulus plan.
Now the bill is coming due.
Under the budget expected to be approved Wednesday, the reserve funds will dip to $607 million by the end of fiscal 2012, less than half of what they were when Fenty took office, budget documents show. The mayor is depleting reserve funds after promising the bond-rating agencies this spring that he would not let them dip below $920 million, according to Evans and council staff members at the meeting.
"The trajectory we are on is deadly," Gray said during budget deliberations. "This can't go on. We need to wake up and right-size this budget."
Fenty said Tuesday that he has "tried to strike the right balance" on taxes and spending while working to improve residents' quality of life. Instead of proposing higher income or property taxes, the mayor has sought to create or raise 680 fines and fees.
Fenty, who often pushes on projects that were conceptualized under Mayor Anthony Williams, has overseen the borrowing of hundreds of millions of dollars to refurbish parks and recreation centers and construct neighborhood amenities such as dog parks. But Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi has warned that the city is perilously close to its debt ceiling, meaning that few, if any, capital projects can be approved in the coming years.
Observers say neither the city nor the council has made enough tough decisions to ensure the city's fiscal viability because too many officials are paralyzed by the idea of approving proposals -- no to a hospital tax and no to higher parking meter fees -- that they would perceive as votes against them in the fall. However, in an effort to stem other social service cuts, the council apparently agreed Tuesday night to extend the city's 6 percent sales tax to sodas and to scale back the city's summer jobs program.
"They are all at fault," said Paul Craney, executive director of the local GOP committee. "They have been spending so much money so quickly, and it's starting to catch up to them. "
But advocates and some council members say that recently enacted and proposed budget cuts are already tearing up the "social safety net." The city is slated to end housing assistance for former foster children, said Tommy Wells (D - Ward 6), who added that the cut would mean many foster kids could become homeless when they turn 18.
Last year, an average of 35 families stayed at the D.C. General homeless shelter every night. This year, that number has swelled to 135, Wells said. Last weekend, according to council member Michael Brown (I-At Large), 15 families were turned away from D.C. General because there was no room.
"When you make cuts, it affects people's survival," said Brown, who has proposed raising income taxes on the wealthy.
The budget reductions offer a preview to even larger challenges the city will face next year, when federal stimulus grants are set to expire. "I am extremely concerned that next year those dollars won't be there," Wells said.
Gray has shied away from Brown's tax plan, upsetting a politically active group. "He's trying to avoid having to take a stance, and we are really disappointed," said Joni Podschun, campaign manager for Save Our Safety Net, a coalition of three dozen nonprofit and political organizations.
Other observers credit Gray for being a calm, steady leader, saying he has been forced to essentially rebuild the mayor's plan.
Fenty largely steers clear of budget negotiations. Yet because of his political skills, he has remained a force this year during council deliberations about how to trim the budget. Even though many council members think that some fat can be trimmed from the schools budget, Fenty has ruled out reductions to the system's $564 million spending plan.
Council members fear a repeat of last year, when they approved $20 million in cuts to schools to help balance the budget. The savings were largely aimed at summer schools, but Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee used the reductions to justify laying off more than 200 teachers.
To avoid a similar controversy this election year, members have not challenged Fenty on school funding, noting that Rhee recently agreed to a new $135 million contract. "If we cut the schools budget, how long would it be before the chancellor says she can't fund the schools contract?" Gray asked his colleagues last week. "It would come within five minutes."