Allen Lew takes on D.C. budget challenge

D.C. administrator Allen Lew is tasked with cutting the budget.
D.C. administrator Allen Lew is tasked with cutting the budget. (The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 11:15 PM

City administrator Allen Y. Lew is decorating his new office on the fifth floor of the John A. Wilson Building with dozens of hard hats, reminders that he managed construction of the District's largest and most expensive publicly funded endeavors over the past decade - from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center to Nationals Park to new school buildings.

Still, some of the hard hats remained in boxes one day last month.

Lew, using choice words, explained that if he's not satisfied with a firm's work, he tucks its hard hat away. "It depends on who's in favor and who's not in favor," said Lew, 60, who has developed a reputation as a commanding and hands-on boss. "They look to see if their hat is up. . . . That's how they know if they're doing a good job."

On that day, Lew was trying to overcome the fallout from the Jan. 26 snowstorm that snarled the region's roads and inundated local and federal governments with complaints about grueling, extended commutes.

"In my world before, I didn't deal with all the agencies," said Lew, acknowledging that he was out of his element.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) tapped Lew - a former executive director of the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization under predecessor mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) - to run a government facing a daunting deficit that could run as high as $600 million under some estimates and already instituting four furlough days to save more than $19 million this year.

Turns out that Lew - an architect by training who became a go-to construction guru, beginning with New York City's Jacob K. Javitz Convention Center in the 1980s - hasn't had much practice cutting budgets.

Although he repeatedly says he completed construction projects "on time and on budget," a Washington Post review of more than a dozen projects shows that most ballooned in price. The convention center jumped from $714 million to $834 million by the time it was completed in 2003. The baseball stadium price tag swelled by $80 million to $691 million before costly amenities are added in.

Out of a list of 16 schools and a pool built under his leadership, 12 went over budget. In each case, Lew bulldozed his way to additional spending with the power of persuasion.

He convinced city leaders that the projects' initial budgets were unrealistic for the quality they demanded. The increased spending, he said, was justified. "It's like a doctor," Lew said. "You question his opinion. You get a second opinion, a second budget, a third budget."

But with the District's massive deficit, Lew's era of big spending is over. He won't be able to just ask for more money to pick up the trash, clear snow, deliver social services or build parks and pools. Instead, he must maintain services with fewer resources while managing the expectations of a public used to certain services but who balk at higher taxes or fees and a Republican-led Congress that is increasingly interested in District government.

Lew has many supporters, but even some of them wonder whether he will be able to transition from project management to governing.

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