Belt-tightening in the District

Saturday, December 4, 2010; 6:23 PM

IT IS POSSIBLE to take issue with some of the spending cuts advanced by D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), but his overall approach to the District's budget crisis is correct. He has sensibly proposed that the city not spend money it doesn't have on things it can't afford. It's worrisome, then, that some members of the D.C. Council seem to think the District can tax its way out of its fiscal hole. The city needs to start living within its means. As painful as it is to cut popular programs, the council needs to emulate the fiscal discipline shown by Mr. Fenty in coming up with spending cuts.

The District faces a budget gap estimated at $188 million for this fiscal year, with even larger problems projected for later years. To solve the immediate problem, Mr. Fenty has called for $111 million of spending cuts affecting a wide array of city services from job training to tree trimming; the remaining gap would be covered by, among other things, increasing fees, eliminating jobs and reorganizing debt. The mayor's proposal set off howls of protest, with more than 140 activists and advocates lining up in the council chambers to plead their causes in a 14-hour budget hearing Tuesday. No question that some of the programs suggested for cuts provide worthy services; the council is right to determine if the outgoing mayor made the right choices in, say, scaling back welfare payments or cutting grandparent subsidies that keep children from having to go into foster care.

Surely, though, council members should be able to find comparable savings in a budget of roughly $5.3 billion. Consider that other local jurisdictions facing far more serious budget issues were able to realize savings by streamlining operations, cutting services, curtailing benefits to government workers or imposing furloughs. Those cost-cutting ideas appeared anathema to council members such as Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) who would rather raise taxes than even consider cutting pet programs. Should the city really be starting expensive initiatives in the face of serious budget problems?

The recession that has affected city revenue is also hurting D.C. families and businesses. There may have been consensus for tax hikes among the advocates at Tuesday's hearing, but we suspect there's different thinking in the real world outside the council chambers. Quick fixes such as the notion of just soaking the city's wealthiest families would place the city at a competitive disadvantage with surrounding jurisdictions in attracting and retaining residents.

Council Chairman and Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D), in a thoughtful speech last month on the state of the city's finances, noted that for four years the city's expenditures exceeded its revenue as it drew on lush reserves. That luxury is gone. Mr. Gray has yet to say what approach he will take, but we hope his statement was a signal he is prepared to make the hard decisions that are needed.

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