D.C. voters left in dark on handling of city deficit

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, October 9, 2010; A15

As fortuitous scheduling would have it, the District's elected leaders will probably escape having to account for their actions on the city's growing budget deficit. At least they won't have to explain their votes before the polls open on Nov. 2, Election Day.

Under the timetable for action to close the budget gap, laid out this week by D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray, painful decisions won't be made until after the general election ballots have been counted.

Gray announced in a news release that he expects outgoing Mayor Adrian Fenty, who has already frozen hiring and instituted hiring restrictions, to submit a gap-closing plan to the council this month. That would be followed by a public hearing in early to mid-November. A council vote on the fiscal year 2011 gap-closing plan should take place, Gray said, in "late November or early December."

Talk about running out the clock.

Voters shouldn't have to wait until after the elections to learn how their leaders will address the $175 million budget deficit, which, Gray says, could grow to as high as $400 million in fiscal 2012.

It's not as if this is a political matter involving only Gray and Fenty. The council played a role in this crisis. Significantly, eight of its 13 members will face the voters next month: Gray is running for mayor, Kwame Brown (D-At Large) is after the chairman's seat. And David Catania (I-At Large), Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) are seeking reelection.

How they propose to tackle this tough challenge -- whether through spending cuts, tax increases or both -- should be known before residents cast their ballots. After all, the current deficit, and the projected $400 million gap, result not only from revenue shortfalls because of the economic downturn but also from fiscally imprudent decisions by elected city leaders.

Gray acknowledged as much when he said in the news release that "a significant portion of [the $400 million] gap will result from spending for programs that historically have been funded every year, but are instead funded out of the District's reserves on a one-time basis."

The mayor and council allowed such programs as summer youth employment, housing purchase assistance, low-income home energy assistance and emergency rental assistance to draw down the city's reserves instead of requiring that they be funded out of operating revenue.

The alternative was to either cut other programs or raise taxes. Instead, politicians took the easy way out. Now comes the day of reckoning.

"There is currently no money for these important programs in Fiscal Year 2012," Gray disclosed in the news release.

Not that the mayor and council weren't warned about their folly. In two pre-primary-election columns, I made the point that the city's worsening fiscal health was issue No. 1. ["Fenty's ploy: No me, no Rhee," July 10; "It's the D.C. budget, not Michelle Rhee," July 31].

The facts were plain: Fenty and the council took a general-fund balance that was a healthy $1.5 billion in fiscal 2007 down to $920 million by the end of fiscal 2009, a 40 percent reduction over two years. They also hit it up for at least another $80 million in fiscal 2010, which ended last month.

Gray, to his credit, has now declared his unwillingness to continue "on our current path of using the one-time fixes that drained our fund balance." But where do the others stand on closing the budget gap? And what's going to make them tell you before Nov. 2?

In this overwhelmingly Democratic town, the party primary is tantamount to the final election. That means, Fenty, who lost his race last month, is off the hook. And primary winners Gray, Brown, Mendelson, Graham, Cheh, Thomas and Wells are virtually home free. Catania is heavily favored to win reelection.

The D.C. Republican Party, the Green Party and assorted independent candidates on the November ballot have shown little sign of mounting a serious challenge. Without a viable opposition party or strong contenders to press the financial issue in debates and candidate forums, the current officeholders will likely skate through the general election without having to show their hands. So far they have offered nothing beyond the usual pledges that they'll "look at spending" and that "everything is on the table," and vague talk about higher taxes on the wealthy.

But the budget cannot be balanced without cuts (where?), tax increases (on what or whom?) or both. Hanging in the balance is the fate of school reform, trolley cars, dog parks, core government services, the social safety net and our future tax burden. How will the politicians do it?

They don't want to tell, and they hope you won't ask. Will you, before Nov. 2?


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