District Reaches Consensus on Budget
By David A. Vise
District officials reached consensus yesterday on a 1999 budget that calls for dismissing about 700 public school employees, increasing the school budget by more than $90 million, granting raises of at least 3 percent to thousands of city workers, increasing the number of police officers and offering about $11.3 million in tax relief to District residents and businesses.
The surprising early resolution was in sharp contrast to last year's chaotic budget process, when essentially the same group of officials wrangled for nine months, producing more than 18 budgets, before the D.C. financial control board and the city's elected officials sent competing versions to Capitol Hill.
Yesterday, Mayor Marion Barry, D.C. Council members and the control board concluded their budget negotiations after several hours of closed-door discussion.
The budget agreement includes a projected $40 million surplus next year that will be used to reduce a multi-year shortfall created by years of overspending. To achieve the surplus, a planned increase in the school budget was reduced by tens of millions of dollars, the control board slashed its budget by $500,000, and dental and optical benefits for nonunion employees were removed from the financial plan.
"It took long hours and numerous meetings and went right down to the wire, but we did it," said control board Chairman Andrew F. Brimmer. "Despite the long shopping lists which various people had, it was clear we had to exercise discipline. On the other hand, we took the view that the most important thing is to make certain that the services are improved."
Although he didn't get the money for tenant assistance and some other programs he supports, Barry (D) said control board members worked more closely and flexibly with city officials in devising a budget this year. "It was a good process, a far cry from last year," the mayor said.
D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) said that the budget will enable the city to move forward with improving services and stabilizing its finances and that everyone agreed to compromise in the end. "Everyone who came in here left without getting something included in the budget that they may have wanted," Cropp said. "But in the final analysis, we have a budget that works and a consensus budget, and I think everyone is probably 90 percent happy with the outcome."
Brimmer said the tax cuts agreed to yesterday fell short of what he had hoped to achieve. The cuts include elimination of a tax on cars owned by people who move into the District, which will cost the city about $1 million. While the move is designed to make the city more appealing to new residents, some citizens oppose the change because they fear nonresidents and college students will find it easier to park in areas where neighborhood parking permits now are required.
Other cuts include a $4 million tax reduction for utilities, a $4 million insurance tax cut and $2.3 million in individual tax reductions brought about by conforming certain personal income tax rules to federal standards.
For thousands of city workers, the raises will be the first since 1994, before the city's plunge into a financial crisis. Police officers will receive raises of about 5 percent, Brimmer said, and the number of uniformed officers may be increased from 3,650 to 3,715. Many other workers will receive increases of at least 3 percent or more. But nonunion employees will not receive dental and optical benefits, a decision Brimmer said was necessary to achieve the projected budget surplus of $40 million.
Cropp said the city's progress on financial matters was made possible in part by tough decisions made by city officials over the last several years. The presidentially appointed control board will remain in charge of the city government until the District balances its budget for three consecutive years and eliminates its multi-year shortfall, which officials had hoped to wipe out in fiscal 1999. Cropp said both goals could be met by generating a surplus of about $41 million in fiscal 2000.
Public school spending will grow from an initial budget of $460 million this year to $555 million. The $95 million increase is substantial, but about $30 million less than had been agreed to earlier this week. Brimmer said about 300 school custodians, 175 central office employees and about 100 staff members assigned to individual schools will lose their jobs. Meanwhile, about $11 million in additional funds will be allocated to charter schools.
Some of the reduction in school spending was achieved by slowing plans to hire 1,000 new teachers, therapists and other special education staff. Tammy Seltzer, co-chairman of the D.C. Special Education Coalition, said city officials are jeopardizing the school system's ability to meet special education standards it agreed to earlier this year.
Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), a mayoral candidate, said he will introduce emergency legislation extending the time officials have to test students for disabilities and place them in appropriate programs from 50 days, the shortest in the nation, to 120 days.
Chavous said the overall budget process was the most collaborative since the control board was created in 1995. Rather than the control board "doing their thing separate and apart from the council and the mayor," he said, "the decisions were made with all of us in the room."
Staff writer Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.
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