D.C. Council members unanimously approved a plan by Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday to finance $9.9 million in bonuses for more than 5,800 unionized city workers, who could get their checks by the end of the week.
It took the council less than 15 minutes to approve four emergency bills authorizing the mayor to partially pay for the bonuses by tapping the District's tobacco settlement fund. The plan is subject to congressional approval, and Williams must repay the settlement fund within 15 days after Congress endorses the bonus plan.
About a dozen union members and Williams's chief of staff were in the council chamber to witness yesterday's vote, which ended a week of warfare between the mayor and some council members who had rejected his initial proposal to use tobacco settlement dollars without specifying how the money would be repaid.
Four hours after the council vote, the D.C. financial control board--which has oversight of D.C. government decisions--signed off on the plan. The measure calls for Williams to raise the money for the bonuses by using $2.2 million in excess money on the control board's books, $3.5 million from savings in the city budget and a $4.2 million loan from the tobacco settlement fund.
The legislation specifies that $2 million in interest savings and a $2.2 million reduction in the city's water bill be used to replace the tobacco settlement dollars. Williams is required to repay the loan 15 days after Congress approves the city's request to shift the dollars around; Congress returns from holiday recess on Jan. 24.
Abdusalam Omer, Williams's chief of staff, said the votes by the council and control board mean that the $1,700 checks should be delivered to union workers on Friday. That was a relief to union workers, who feared that the angry debate between Williams and the council would delay the bonuses until after the holidays.
"I thought I was going to have to tell my kids that Santa Claus didn't make it to the bank," said Miranda Gillis, a union employee of the Department of Housing and Community Development, who saw the council's vote yesterday.
David Schlein, national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, who also was on hand for the vote, said: "We're glad the mayor, city council and control board stuck with it. We're going to see a much better holiday season."
Council members had little to say at yesterday's brief session, unlike a week ago when they spent two hours criticizing Williams's initial proposal as fiscally irresponsible before directing him to find the bonus money in the current year's budget. Williams, whose first plan included using money from next year's budget, blasted the council's action and suggested some members had allowed their personal feelings against him to interfere with governing.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the finance and revenue committee, said he hoped the District's elected leadership had learned a lesson from the past week's events.
"This certainly could have been handled in a better fashion by communication and by putting forth important, accurate numbers," Evans said. "We've taken a lot of hits in the last week and I just want to say this for the record: I personally, and this council, are fiscally responsible. . . . For many years, we have been accused of rubber-stamping while the administration did as it chose."
Evans said the council had a responsibility to insist that Williams pay for the one-time bonuses out of the current fiscal year's budget and to specify how and when he would repay the tobacco fund, which has been designated for health education purposes.
"We did it this time, we'll do it next time and we will continue to be vigilant," Evans said. "I hope it's a lesson that the council and the mayor look to in the future."
Omer, the mayor's chief of staff, was conciliatory and said he attended yesterday's council session "to say thank you, and let's work together. It's time to do the people's business together."
Williams did not respond to several telephone calls seeking comment.
Council members had sought to make clear to anxious union members that their questions about the mayor's earlier plan was not a move against the bonuses, which were included in a contract negotiated three years ago as a way to compensate workers who endured furloughs and salary freezes during the city's recent fiscal crisis. The city now projects a budget surplus of $150 million this year.
Williams had fretted that the council's insistence that he find other ways to fund the bonuses would cause him to blow his Dec. 15 deadline for delivering the checks.
Over the weekend, Williams and some council members began talking, and agreed to meet Monday to hash out a financing plan. The financial control board worked behind the scenes to resolve the dispute by huddling with Chief Financial Officer Valerie Holt to find the money for the bonuses, which wound up including $2.2 million of the board's own funds.
Control board Chairman Alice M. Rivlin said the board's contribution came from interest income the board saves for emergencies. "This did seem to me to be an emergency," she said.
Rivlin said the lesson D.C. officials should have learned from the dispute is that "continual dialogue is always a good idea. The mayor and council just have to get more comfortable with each other. . . . They know that now."