Democratic candidate Patricia Roberts Harris criticized Mayor Marion Barry yesterday for his handling of the city's budget and accused his administration of releasing deceptive revenue and spending estimates this week that show the city headed for a $3 million surplus by the end of the fiscal year.
"I don't believe the figures," Harris told reporters during a sidewalk press conference she held outside a D.C. office building at 613 G Street NW to unveil her own plans for improving the management of the city's financial affairs.
"The problem is we cannot get the truth because of deliberate efforts to obscure the truth by this administration," Harris said.
At the District Building, meanwhile, City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, emerging from a briefing on the city's financial condition given by Barry aides, said he saw "no indication of a fiscal crisis." Dixon said his own budget staff "has raised no red flags" about potential problems during the last several months.
Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), chairman of the finance and revenue committee, attended the briefing but asked no questions. He said later that he stood by his early prediction that, based on revenue shortfalls reported through June, there could be a deficit of up to $40 million.
"The mayor and the chairman of the Council know what they're doing. I know what I'm doing," Wilson said. He said the city could reduce the deficit by controlling spending but doubted a deficit could be avoided.
At her press conference in front of the building that houses the city's personnel office, Harris said Barry has taken the city on a "financial roller coaster ride" during the last 3 1/2 years, including a dire warning of a possible massive deficit last year that turned out to be a $68-milliion surplus.
"Today we are all too painfully aware that no one--not even Congress--is adequately or accurately informed of Washington's financial condition," said Harris, a lawyer and former Carter administration cabinet member who is running against Barry and four others in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.
Harris offered a four-part program for improving the city's financial management that includes establishing a $25-million reserve contingency fund to cover unexpected revenue shortfalls and other emergencies.
The program also includes creation of a Department of Management, Budget and Finance to centralize revenue collection and expenditure information.
Harris promised to report to the Council monthly and residents every two months on revenues and expenditures.
"Should anyone try to sell a quick-fix program, beware," she said. "Putting this city back on its feet will take a hard, deliberate, thoughtful, common-sense approach."
On Wednesday, City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers released revised third-quarter figures for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 indicating that revenues would fall about $5 million short of earlier projections. But the shortfall would be more than offset, he said, by $8.1 million in savings associated with the operation of Metro and reduced city spending.
Wilson asserted last week that the city had quietly imposed a hiring freeze to help cut spending. Rogers responded at the time by saying that the city wasn't filling some vacancies, but never referred to it as a hiring freeze.
In releasing revised revenue and spending estimates this week, Rogers told reporters there would be no need to impose a freeze on hiring. Yesterday, Harris discounted Rogers' assurances and criticized Barry for ordering a cutback in city hiring. "I believe Mr. Wilson on this issue," she said.
Harris said imposing a freeze was unwise. "At best, this strategy will only postpone the day of reckoning," Harris said. "The theory of robbing Peter of new jobs to pay Paul's debts rarely solves the long-term problem."
Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) said that based on the briefing she would push her plan for $2 million in tax relief for senior citizens by freezing assessments for homeowners over 65. "Now we are talking about a $3 million surplus there is no excuse for not going ahead with some property tax relief," Kane said.