In a hectic last-day session before adjourning until September, the D.C. City Council yesterday approved a laundry list of legislation including measures to restrict condominium conversions and increase commercial property taxes.
In swift order, the council also:
Gave preliminary approval to new, higher water and sewer rates.
Overrode Mayor Marion Barry's veto of a bill to restrict executive borrowing powers.
Voted to give the mayor power to withhold wage increases for District government workers.
Shelved a move to strip 38 national and local organizations here of their tax-exempt status.
Agreed to ask Congress for money to pay $3.3 million in civil damages and out-of-court settlements for hundreds of demonstrators arrested during the mass May Day antiwar protests here in 1971. Many of the arrests were ruled illegal by the courts.
The bill providing for immediate condominium conversion restrictions was the council's most controversial action, as well as the politically most sensitive. The bill puts rigid restrictions on conversions effective as soon as the mayor signs the bill.
Passed yesterday as an emergency, the measure is identical to permanent legislation passed by the council on June 17. That permanent bill is now tied up in congressional review and has little prospect of taking effect before the existing moratorium on such conversions expires Aug. 20.
Some council members argued that the restrictions should be enacted immediately to protect elderly tenants from being forced out if their buildings are converted. Opponents maintain that to make the new restrictions effective immediately with no public notice, would be unfair to various tenant organizations now in the process of buying their buildings for conversion into condominiums or cooperatives.
Council Chairman Arrington Dixon said the issue was whether the tenant groups trying to purchase their buildings had more rights than the elderly who wish to remain in their apartments at low rents. The new restrictions provide tenancy for elderly renters for the three-year life of the bill.
"I have made up my mind that the young and the working people can take care of themselves in this situation," council Member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) said in an impassioned plea that brought at least two elderly women in the council chamber audience to tears.
Wilson said, "You have to take a side. You can either go with the tenants organizations or you can go with the old people. I'm going with the old people. Let the old people die with dignity, let the old people die with a place to live. They're going to die soon anyway. You'll get your damn units."
By a 12-to-1 vote, the council defeated an amendment by Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) to exempt tenant organizations already in the process of buying their buildings from the restrictions. The council also defeated a proposal to delay the curbs until Aug. 20, when the current moratorium expires.
The measure increasing taxes on commercial properties in the city was unanimously approved without debate. It will raise the rate on business properties from the present $1.83 per $100 of assessed value to $2.13 and is expected to bring in an additional $15.8 million in revenues in fiscal 1981. The new rate goes into effect as soon as Mayor Barry signs the bill, probably in the next few days.
In other action, the council approved a plan to put District employes on a personnel system independent of the federal government. That bill, which was hotly contested at public hearings by union leaders, gives the mayor the power to set pay for city workers.
City employes have traditionally received pay raises identical to those given federal workers. But this year, under a recently approved District civil service system, new procedures are to go into effect including collective bargaining between the city and union representatives.
President Carter, in his federal budget, proposed a 6.25 percent pay hike for U.S. government workers, an amount the financially strapped city may have trouble matching. Barry has indicated he does not currently support a pay raise for city workers.
The council also voted 12 to 1 yesterday, with councilman John Ray (D-At Large) opposed, to raise water and sewer rates 35 percent for city residents.
The bill increases water rates from 39.4 cents to 46 cents per 100 cubic feet of water consumed. Sewer rates will jump from 44.8 cents to 67.7 cents per 100 cubic feet.
The bill is designed to bring the city $13.6 million in additional revenue for fiscal year 1981. The rates are scheduled to go into effect Oct. 1.
The most dramatic point of the day-long council session came over the tabling of a bill, introduced by Councilman David Clarke (D-Ward 1) to repeal the tax-exempt status of properties owned by certain national organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Tree Association.
Clarke said that with District citizens now among the highest taxed in the nation and with organizations such as the Tree Association having tax-exempt status, "The citizens of this city have less rights than the trees do."
Thirty-eight organizations have been granted tax-exempt status by Congress.
Several council members expressed concern that if the council repealed those tax exemptions, Congress might retaliate by slashing next year's federal payment or voting down one or more of the mayor's proposals to have the federal government help resolve the city's financial crisis.
Speeches by Clarke and Dixon highlighted the conflicting schools of thought on how best the District government could deal with its limited taxing authority. Clarke advocated stripping the exempt groups of their favored status, but Dixon urged a "partnership" with those groups to make them allies in the fight against Congress.
Councilman Wilson then jumped into the fray, suggesting that the council threaten to repeal the tax exemptions if Congress does not approve a full federal payment for the city. The District's home rule charter authorizes Congress to appropriate a federal payment of up to $330 million annually, but it has always approved smaller amounts.
"We should send a message to Congress," said Wilson, "that if we can't get a $300 million federal payment, then we're going to tax anything and everything in this city. When we decided to blow our macho shotgun, then we ought to blow it for something."
Dixon cautioned, "I do have some concerns about playing chicken with Congress." The measure was then tabled until the council's first session in October.