Imagine that, in some parallel universe, you are Emperor of Washington. No need to dicker with the city council, no need to wrangle with congressional committees. How would you spend the District's
$300 million budget windfall? Outlook posed that question to a handful of Washingtonians. Here are their answers:
Chef and co-owner,
Jaleo, Cafe Atlantico,
Zaytinya and Oyamel:
I'm very concerned by the diet of the District's citizens. We should think of following the lead of well-known chef Alice Waters, who founded an "edible schoolyard" program in Berkeley that encourages schoolchildren to plant organic plots; this way, they can learn about where food comes from, the seasons and the importance of fresh products for our health, community and environment. I'd also suggest that we invest in a universal school breakfast program and improve the lunches we serve, so that all children have the nutrition they need to thrive. Lastly, many residents of the District don't have access to stores offering fresh fruits and vegetables. The city should create incentives to draw stores and greenmarkets to its poorer neighborhoods. We need to invest in the health of our residents; improving the food they eat would be a great place to start.
Director, AARP District of Columbia:
With the surplus, we could give more financial support to the more than 8,000 D.C. grandparents who, as the primary caretakers, are making often-heroic sacrifices to raise their grandchildren. A bill pending before the District Council right now, for example, would provide low-to-moderate income grandparents with the same financial assistance foster parents receive. The mayor has included start-up funding of $2 million in next year's budget; we'd like to see that expand.
Editor, DCist.com, a blog about the District:
The city should invest in a free wireless Internet system for downtown. It would make living and working in D.C. easier and, from an economic development point of view, attract creative, tech-savvy people and businesses.
Executive director, D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute:
D.C.'s economy is strong, but not everyone is benefiting. Unemployment is on the rise and the already-wide gap between rich and poor residents appears to be growing even wider. D.C.'s surplus should be devoted to this problem, through two broad strategies:
Funds should help lower-income families in revitalizing neighborhoods keep or find affordable housing where they are. This preserves neighborhood character, promotes family and community stability, and means that existing residents actually can enjoy the positive changes revitalization brings. If residents are simply displaced as rents rise, they will be pushed into homelessness or a cluster of extremely poor neighborhoods, where the chance to succeed is low.
Many D.C. public schools are in awful physical shape, and funding cuts have led to layoffs of music, art and foreign language teachers and school librarians. School athletic programs are a disgrace, too. D.C. also needs a system of educational offerings to give job skills to older youth and adults, the purpose that community colleges serve so well elsewhere.
Educational improvements should be coupled with services that strengthen neighborhoods and families. Substance abuse treatment, parent support services, and programs for youth are a few that come to mind.
President and CEO, Black Entertainment Television
First in line for the city's surplus should be teachers and their fundamental needs for classroom tools. In business, we never take on challenges without the proper equipment. Why should teachers have to function any differently?
Executive director, Downtown
Cluster of Congregations:
I would argue for the most visible, common-sense projects that benefit the largest number of residents. To that end, let's do 20 projects costing in the $10 to $20 million range across the city that people can actually see and feel and enjoy.
* Plant trees in the 25,000 empty tree spaces that we have lost over the last two decades, and for safety's sake, take down all the dead trees / dead limbs that create havoc with power lines and raise safety concerns.
* Put $10 million to $20 million into a year-round job corps for citywide clean-up -- all the graffiti-tagged switching boxes, trash-strewn corridors, sidewalks, etc. Nothing restores folks to walking along retail areas like clean sidewalks, gutters, and attractive plantings. Not only do we get a cleaner city, we help put to work the over 20,000 D.C. residents who are unemployed.
* Get rid of all the useless, space-consuming, broken-down, frustration-causing parking meters once and for all, and replace them with the one-a-block, solar-powered meter mechanisms that Georgetown has. All our neighborhoods should be treated so well.
* Put up municipal parking in those off-the-main-track areas that are working to re-establish retail. Downtown Bethesda has a booming restaurant area because people know they can park; let's take similar steps for the transforming U Street area, Columbia Heights, Brookland, H Street NE, and other areas in order to keep growth going in these underserved communities.
* Fund the updating of at least five to 10 neighborhood libraries that desperately need state-of-the-art wiring and computers, flexible space for meetings, and staffing for after-school learning and literacy efforts.
* Any funds left over, pick those school buildings that are in worst shape and dedicate the funds to their restoration.
These types of expenditures put people to work, make our city more attractive and cleaner, create more economic opportunity, and give us facilities and neighborhoods we can be proud of. In reality they likely end up saving money way beyond the amount that's spent. Now that's smart spending.
President, National Trust for Historic Preservation:
The city should provide funding to continue the restoration of the Lincoln Cottage, on the grounds of the Soldiers'Home. One of the most important "unknown" Lincoln sites in the country, it was a home away from home for Lincoln and his family during the Civil War; he worked on drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation during his stays there. Exterior restoration of the cottage was completed earlier this year, but there's still plenty of work to be done before we can open it to the public: About $3 million for the interior renovation, and another $3 million for exhibits, programming, staff, etc.
Executive director, District of Columbia Arts Center:
District artists have limited public funding resources: In Virginia, you can apply to your county, town or state, but in the District it's just the city -- and the National Endowment for the Arts. Because there's no delineation for experience in how the money's handed out, national-level artists like Sam Gilliam or William Christenberry are applying for the same money as someone who paints on the weekends or who just graduated. We need a better, smarter funding apparatus. The real estate boom won't last forever, so maybe setting up an endowment would be the best answer. Right now, the city's whole arts budget is a little better than $3 million, less than that of San Francisco, Chicago or Atlanta. Out of $318 million, I don't think that another $3 million is out of the question.
TOGO D. WEST JR.
President and CEO,
Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies:
Education, youth-related job and recreational programs -- virtually any program that will get the youth of the District of Columbia off the streets and into productive and formative activities would be a good investment for the city. There is never enough money in any urban budget to support these.