Mayor Anthony A. Williams proposed a $528 million capital budget yesterday that would increase spending on projects for police and firefighters but cut a planned recreation center, three senior centers and renovations to the city's main library.
The two-inch-thick book of major projects provoked immediate criticism from D.C. Council members, who had been lobbying behind the scenes to preserve construction and renovation initiatives that had been on the drawing board for years.
Many projects initially considered by Williams (D) for elimination were restored in his budget, but others were not. Council members vowed to carry on their fights over capital spending as they also consider the mayor's proposed operating budget for fiscal 2004 at hearings this month.
"They were too quick to cut important capital projects," said council member Adrian M. Fenty (D), whose Ward 4 would lose a planned recreation center in the Lamont-Riggs neighborhood in Northeast Washington. "Once you commit to something, you've got to stick with it."
Also yesterday, the council approved changes to the city's operating budget for the current fiscal year to close a $134 million gap. The changes, which include salary and hiring freezes for many workers, cannot go into effect without approval from Congress. Williams administration officials hope to have the bill attached to a war appropriation measure advancing on the Hill.
The council action yesterday was the second major rewrite of the fiscal 2003 budget, coming after $323 million in tax increases and spending cuts in October. The changes made yesterday would reallocate $39 million from budget reserves and fund balances and save $95 million through hiring freezes and the suspension of raises for nonunion workers.
A much bigger fight is developing over the capital budget. Williams would cut $87 million of projects that had been scheduled for funding and would add $150 million of new projects, for a net increase of $63 million.
The changes reflect a combination of budget pressures and a renewed emphasis on basic government priorities such as new firetrucks and computer systems.
Losing out would be planned senior centers in Wards 1, 2 and 6 that would have cost a total of $10.4 million. The recreation center in the Lamont-Riggs neighborhood was slated for $4.4 million.
Williams also would eliminate $6.5 million in initial design funds for renovating or replacing the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown. The eventual cost of that project has been estimated at $100 million, though library advocates have disagreed on whether it would be better to replace or renovate the building.
Administration officials said they conducted a careful review of projects that were slated for funding but for which ground had not been broken. Officials have struggled to even find a site, for example, for the planned senior center in densely developed Ward 1.
"We need to find a site for the center before we put aside money to build it," said Gregory McCarthy, deputy chief of staff for Williams.
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) vowed to restore funding for a center for his ward's 7,500 seniors. "There is going to be a senior wellness center," he said. "No question about it."
While the Office of Aging, the library system and the Department of Parks and Recreation would face major cuts in capital spending under the mayor's proposal, several other agencies would get sharp increases. The D.C. police would get $28.6 million for new projects, and the fire department would get $46.5 million, including money for several new vehicles.
The Office of the Chief Technology Officer, which supplies telecommunications and information systems to city government, would see its capital budget grow by $32.3 million under the mayor's plan. The proposed capital budget for that agency for the coming year is $90 million, or about one of every six dollars set aside by the city government for capital projects.