Mayor Walter E. Washington renewed the District of Columbia's call for power to tax suburban commuters yesterday as he warned a congressional subcommittee that the city's budget would outstrip its revenue by $288 million within five years.
The mayor and several high-ranking aides appeared before the House District Appropriations Subcommittee as it began two weeks of hearings into the city's proposed $1.4 billion budget for the fiscal year that will start next Oct. 1.
Rep. William H. Natcher (D-Ky.), the subcommittee's chairman, opened the hearing with praise for the mayor and critism of the city's news media for reports suggesting misdeeds in the city administration.
"I think they (the reporters) write them down dark alleys," Natcher said.
Natcher ended the day on a far different note, disclosing note, disclosing - after the mayor had left the hearing - that he would question Washington and others on a city policy that permitted the Department of Human Resources to sign a controversial lease of a building from Dominic F. Antonelli, a developer and parking garage executive.
"This is a right poor system," Natcher observed, saying the city should maintain central control of leasing policies.
Asked later by a reporter whether he intended to focus on DHR, Natcher replied: "Before it's over, we're going into all of it, yes."
In a widely publicized instance, Joseph P. Yeldell, then DHR director and now a special assistant to the mayor, signed a $5.6 million long-term lease on a building owned by Antonelli. About the same time, Yeldell received a $33,000 personal loan from a friend of Antonelli.
Several investigations have failed to produce hard evidence of wrongdoing, which Yeldell has denied.
References to the leasing question took only moments of a five-hour hearing tht ranged widely, but was dominated by a discussion of the city's problems of raising enough money to maintain public services.
The mayor, apparently mindful that talk of a commuter tax would stir controversy, made only a passing reference to what he viewed as the city's need "to tax all sources" of revenue - clearly meaning the wages earned by suburban commuters who work in the city.
City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker carried it a step further, saying the city has "no desire to raid the treasuries of neighboring jurisdictions" by unilaterally taxing their residents.
Tucker predicted that the city, if authorized by Congress to levy such taxes, could negotiate friendly arrangements with suburban jurisdictions for taxing one another's residents.
Suburban officials and lawmakers have staunchly resisted such taxation, a stance that led Rep. Clair W. Burgener (R-Calif.) to ask Tucker: "Is a commuter tax a reality, or just rhetoric?"
It's a reality, Tucker replied.
Burgener also was sharply critical of the fact that District officials were omitted from a meeting of congressmen with President Carter, held recently at the request of Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House District Committee.
The absence of city officials was "at best an unforgivable oversight and at worst an unpardonable outrage, and paternalism at its worst," Burener said.
During the hearing, Natcher reminded Mayor Washington of Natcher's warnings as far back as 1966 - denied at that time by Metro officials - that the Metrorail system would cost between $4 billion and $5 billion. The projected cost has now exceeded $5 billion and, Natcher said yesterday, "in my opinion it will run between $6 billion and $7 billion."
Natcher also sharply critized one proposal in the city budget, to reduce the Metropolitan Police Department by 103 officers through attrition, to a total of 4,570. Then he asked Police Chief Maurice J. Cullinance for his opinion of the cutback. Cullinance opposed it as a matter, he said, of "professional judgement."