When D.C. Council Chairman John A. Wilson proposed this week to furlough 13 council members and each of their 172 staff members for 10 days, he said it was the only way he could think to trim the council's budget by 10 percent, as requested by Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon.
But Wilson's move also could be seen as part of another effort: seizing back the initiative in the debate over the city's rapidly escalating budget deficit.
For years, Wilson has delighted in playing the role of "Dr. Doom" on finance and budget issues.
As chairman of the council's Finance and Revenue Committee, Wilson frequently castigated then-Mayor Marion Barry and his staff for overspending, and acted to block Barry on several occasions in which Barry sought to raise taxes.
But with the ascendancy of Dixon as mayor, Wilson has found himself on unfamiliar terrain, vying with another prominent city politician for the position of most fiscally conservative.
Dixon has promised not to raise taxes, and upon taking office, she ordered deep cuts in agency budgets in an effort to close a projected $300 million budget deficit this year.
On the other hand, she has yet to order deep cuts in personnel, as she promised during her campaign for mayor, nor has she cited the need for furloughs to close the budget deficit this year.
By being the first politician to propose furloughs, Wilson seems to be trying to pressure Dixon to take more drastic steps to cut the budget.
Only by slashing personnel, he says, can the city's runaway deficit problem be brought under control.
Despite the public relations value of furloughs, most public finance experts say that furloughs are not a long-term solution to the city's budget problems because they do nothing to reduce the overall size of the bureaucracy.
That can be accomplished only through a reduction in force of city workers.
But furloughs have one virtue, both for the council and the government in general: They represent a quick way of saving money for the cash-strapped city government.
By putting furloughs on the table for the council, Wilson essentially puts them on the table for the whole city government and demonstrates the seriousness of the city's fiscal situation.
"This is not a joke," Wilson said this week. "We have to convince the rest of the bureaucracy that this is truly a crisis situation."
The furloughs, which would occur over a five-month period, received mixed reviews from the council, although they were approved in a private session on Tuesday.
In practical terms, the action may not mean that much, because each council member is considered an independent personnel authority.
Thus, an individual council member conceivably could avoid the furloughs by proposing other, offsetting cuts in his or her office budget.
"I will do what is necessary to bring this budget in line," said council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4). "There are going to have to be sacrifices that we all have to make."
Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) criticized the plan, saying Wilson should "exhaust all other options" before furloughing anyone.
"It's very difficult for me to penalize a small segment of the government without going across the board," Crawford said.Chairman Fills Key Posts
While Dixon has taken her time in filling some of her key Cabinet positions, Wilson has moved quickly to fill the key posts in the new council staff hierarchy, in some cases by attracting experienced hands from the executive branch.
Carol Meyers, formerly the city's deputy budget director, has become the council's budget director, a post long held by Arthur Blitzstein, an aide to former council chairman David A. Clarke.
Pat Barrs, a former lawyer in the D.C. Corporation Counsel's Office, has been appointed general counsel to the council.
The duties of that critical position include helping to draft legislation and ensuring its legal correctness.
Toni Perry, a former Wilson aide who recently worked at the Department of Corrections, has become clerk for the Committee of the Whole, the important council committee that controls budget, finance and land-use matters and serves as a clearinghouse for all legislation.
As previously reported, Wilson's campaign manager, Phyllis Jones, has become council secretary, and longtime aide Brigid Quin has become his chief of staff.
Another constituent services aide, Eric Jones, is executive assistant.
Campaign aide Faith Edwards is now Wilson's press secretary.