The D.C. Council tentatively voted yesterday to slash nearly $60 million from spending requests submitted by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, but the council abruptly suspended its work after the cuts drew a veto threat from the mayor and outrage from Chairman Linda W. Cropp and some council members.
More than half of the proposed reductions, $37.3 million, would come from the budgets of health and human services agencies.
After 41/2 hours of increasingly acrimonious debate -- which pitted fiscal conservatives seeking to slow spending against council members seeking more generous funding for social services -- the council decided to postpone a final vote on the city's more than $4 billion budget. Deliberations will resume at 10 a.m. Friday.
"It was very clear we needed to pull back," Cropp (D) said after the council broke for the day. "I don't think this whole process was the council's greatest hour."
The emotional battle began when six council members, led by Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), proposed to cut nearly $60 million from a compromise budget plan offered by Williams (D) and altered in negotiations with council members.
The compromise would have set a $4.17 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins in October, using newly optimistic revenue projections to wipe out more than $27 million in tax and fee increases included in Williams's original budget request.
But Patterson and other council conservatives argued that they should cut far more deeply. Williams's original budget request represented a 7.2 percent increase in spending over the current budget and a more than 50 percent increase over spending in 1998, according to an analysis prepared by Patterson's office.
"The District of Columbia moved itself out of financial crisis in 1995, 1996 and 1997 and succeeded in bringing our budget back into the black ink. My fear . . . is we are headed back down that same path toward fiscal crisis and a financial control board," Patterson told her colleagues. "We can't sustain the rate of growth pending before us today."
To rein in spending, Patterson and five of her colleagues proposed to slash requested increases for a variety of city agencies, including $3 million for the police department, $1 million for the fire department and $3.75 million for the inspector general's office.
The most dramatic budget cuts would come from social services. The proposal would hold the departments of Health and Human Services to 6 percent growth, slashing nearly $26 million from their budget requests. The Department of Mental Health would lose $5 million in requested increases, and the Child and Family Services Agency, which handles child abuse and neglect cases, would lose $6.3 million.
Cropp and those opposed to the cuts grew increasingly agitated as it became apparent that the proposal was about to pass. They argued that the reductions -- most of which were presented as across-the-board cuts, rather than reductions to specific programs -- would slice $10 million from pre-kindergarten and early childhood education and $4 million from the city school system's efforts to implement the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The social service cuts, they said, would fall most heavily on city residents least able to help themselves, including those who depend on a city health care program since the mayor closed D.C. General Hospital 2001.
"For those people who were impacted by the closure of D.C. General, it says let me kick you . . . too," Cropp said.
Shortly before the vote, Williams made a rare appearance outside council chambers and pulled council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large) into his offices for a brief chat. But Williams failed to sway Brazil, who voted with Patterson, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and David A. Catania (R-At Large) to approve the cuts.
Afterward, Williams spokesman Tony Bullock said the mayor is prepared to veto the budget rather than accept cuts to priority programs. But "with a little time and a little calm," he said, the mayor is hopeful that "we'll see a more appealing outcome."