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D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's spending priorities don't favor certain wards, data show

Mayor Adrian Fenty referees a race between council member Harry Thomas Jr. and kids at the renovated Edgewood Field Center in Ward 5.
Mayor Adrian Fenty referees a race between council member Harry Thomas Jr. and kids at the renovated Edgewood Field Center in Ward 5. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has been good to Georgetown, where the city has spent $1 million a year on the Circulator bus service, $23 million to transform the neighborhood's library after a fire and $30 million to upgrade the water-damaged Hardy Middle School.

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His administration also has invested in some of the poorer communities abutting the Anacostia River, pouring $55 million into the construction of four libraries in Ward 7 that feature WiFi and laptops and $116 million into school construction in Ward 8, including the $28 million Savoy Elementary School.

In a city where the geographic lines of Rock Creek Park and the Anacostia River have historically defined racial and class divisions, some critics of Fenty (D) have long branded the mayor as favoring white neighborhoods at the expense of black communities. But a Washington Post analysis of city data on school construction, parks and recreation projects, and funding for new libraries and schools over the past three years shows that the reality is more complex.

And as the city's population becomes whiter and younger, the old geographic fault lines aren't as telling as they once were. In addition, some of the complaints about the mayor's spending point to the lack of private development -- like grocery stores and office-supply chains -- that the city can influence but not control.

Records show, for example, that predominantly black Ward 5 received more school construction funds -- $152 million -- than any other ward in fiscal 2008 and 2009.

According to the city's most recent data available, Wards 8 and 2 followed with $117 million and $103 million, respectively, crushing the idea that when it comes to school construction, wards were favored by class and race. Ward 2 is mostly white, and it includes Georgetown as well as condo-soaked downtown, while Ward 8 is nearly all African American and has the city's highest unemployment and poverty rates.

Over the past few months, Fenty has maintained a frenetic ribbon-cutting pace throughout the city, but his detractors' criticism has stuck partly because of his initial focus on recreation projects in mostly white and affluent Ward 3, his push for gentrification in some neighborhoods despite resident opposition, and his swift response to the fires at the Georgetown Public Library and Eastern Market. His cuts in social programs -- including closing service centers in Northeast and Southeast to help close a budget gap -- also have fed accusations of favoritism.

In a brief interview, Fenty acknowledged that he could do better to inform residents that his administration spends city funds without regard to race or class. And to communicate to voters that he backs projects in all four corners of the city, his reelection campaign literature is ward-specific, listing the city-driven or city-funded projects in each community. In part, it reads, "Leadership that gets things done for" [insert ward number].

Spending premiums

Ronald Walters, an expert in urban politics and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland at College Park, said that as the city's population has changed, the mayor has pursued policies that place a premium on certain projects -- dog parks and recreation centers -- that reflect what more-recent residents want but may not be as important to residents of wards with high unemployment or lack of easy access to city services.

"In D.C., you have gentrification, the return of the white population . . . to the point that it has become the effective electorate," said Walters, who points to the city's plan to invest in a $1.5 billion streetcar system as part of a massive gentrification effort. "Look at that kind of investment and the fact that Washington, D.C., has one of the highest poverty rates."

Over the years, residents have decried city spending as geographically uneven. The previous mayor, Anthony A. Williams (D), was criticized for championing $700 million in taxpayer funds for Nationals Park. That expense overshadowed other major projects, including affordable housing efforts, during his administration.

Another project, the Circulator bus -- originally a downtown shuttle under Williams -- will be a $16 million endeavor in fiscal 2011. The buses, which at $1 a ride are cheaper than taking a Metrobus, run only west of the Anacostia River. Last year, Fenty decided to close two of seven service centers of the Income Maintenance Administration to save city coffers $1 million, leaving low-income and unemployed residents in long lines to apply for government assistance. Meanwhile, he backpedaled on plans to eliminate the Circulator's $1 million Georgetown leg after neighborhood residents decried the idea. To save an additional $1.6 million, the administration also shut the Brentwood Department of Motor Vehicles service center in Ward 5. Although it was the least utilized of the city's DMV centers, it was the only service center in Northeast, and residents now crowd into the DMV center in Ward 7's Penn Branch, where the line stretches down a sidewalk behind a strip mall.


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