MAYOR BARRY'S latest emergency budget plan -- which includes four-day furloughs for 26,000 D.C. employees this summer -- works wonders as a fiscal wakeup call even if it does little to address the deeper aspects of bleak times after he leaves office. This isn't saying that the drying up of boom-year revenues is the fault of his administration, though spending policies, contracting procedures and staffing patterns have all been factors. The situation is serious. Tighter times are setting in here as they have in other parts of the country; revenues aren't growing the way they did, and the costs of services to a heavy concentration of poor and older people are requiring greater and greater amounts of those revenues. Sending employees home for four days without pay is a rough way to try to make up $4 million of a budget deficit now projected to be $95 million -- but one way or another, with or without the help of the D.C. Council, strong measures are in order.
In February, when City Administrator Carol Thompson presented Mayor Barry's original budget proposals for the fiscal year that will begin Oct. 1, she said it was "a major milestone in forcing a discussion on priorities." The trouble was that budget never was balanced in reality and didn't begin to address financial difficulties beyond the coming year. The mayor's tax package that came with his budget contained an impossible proposal for a tax on certain professional services but not others and a one-time increase in the income tax that would have affected about half the city's taxpayers.
Taxpayers need a clearer idea of just what they're being asked to pay more for -- given the concerns of council members and others who point to overstaffed and underworked agencies and programs in some pockets of the bureaucracy while finding others strapped and straining to deliver public services.
The council, for its part, should be willing to address the case too. Election year or not, it is neither helpful nor responsible to reduce property tax rates and then refuse even to suggest where spending cuts should be made to make up for uncontrollable losses in tax revenues. At this point, even if all agencies were to live within their budgets, there would be revenue losses; further cutting is therefore necessary. John Wilson, chairman of the council's committee on finance and revenue, has said he won't consider any tax request unless there is proof that the Barry administration actually is cutting agencies' spending. He is not dismissing the prospect of a serious cash shortage, however; on the contrary, Mr. Wilson fears "there's a good possibility that we could miss a payroll in September or October."
Instead of summarily ordering furloughs and leaving the bulk of a projected deficit hanging on tax proposals just dumped on the council, Mr. Barry's administration should work with the council as well as with the independent, nonpartisan group of financial, business, academic, public and private experts currently examining the long-range prospects for the city. The situation merits the kind of collective thinking that will go beyond just another set of executive quick fixes.