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Bowser and D.C. Council spar over proposed budget cuts

The proposed reductions in spending include some programs that received an infusion of federal dollars during the pandemic.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (Pool/Reuters)
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Members of the D.C. Council on Friday pressed the mayor on her $19.7 billion budget proposal, in which she suggested cuts in spending for some programs related to housing and homelessness that had received an infusion of federal dollars during the pandemic — funds that city officials say will soon run out.

Friday’s hearing outlined ideological differences in spending that will need to be hashed out in the coming weeks as lawmakers revise the mayor’s budget proposal, which she presented on Wednesday, and will eventually vote on it in May. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) argues that her proposed reductions in spending reflect the city’s financial realities caused by increased expenses, the looming expiration of pandemic-era federal aid and reduced tax revenue from commercial real estate properties. But lawmakers say those immediate cuts will harm vulnerable residents who have benefited from programs that provide help with rent and other services.

Testifying before the 13-member council Friday, Bowser said the city should be focused on boosting economic opportunities for residents and securing future revenue through initiatives to revitalize downtown — like her proposed $34.6 million boost in fiscal 2028 to a tax abatement that supports office-to-residential conversions, a tool she hopes will provide more housing and activity there.

But even though lawmakers praised initiatives in the budget to buy down medical debt, improve traffic safety and advance certain housing projects, they homed in on a proposed $35 million cut to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) and a reduction of more than $300 million in new funding for the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF), the city’s primary tool for creating affordable housing; those two programs had been boosted significantly by expiring federal dollars.

Others lamented a proposed $23.6 million reduction in spending for a program that provides permanent supportive housing vouchers for individuals, concerns that have been echoed by housing advocates. Bowser and city officials say the decrease is related to a large backlog of vouchers that still need to get out the door.

Among the other points of contention: the funding formula for D.C. public schools as well as decreases in funding for some violence-interruption efforts and legal services for people who are under threat of eviction.

“As I look at the budget, I think about upstream problems that are going to cause us problems years from now,” said council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large). “I think what we’re going to find is a lot of people with nowhere to go except out of the District or into homelessness, and my big concern is what that means five years down the line, maybe less than two years down the line.”

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“The big picture of this budget is disappointing,” added Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who contrasted some of the cuts with the proposed tax abatement to build housing downtown. “Some of that is the reality of the financial deck that’s been dealt. But that scarcity reveals a lot of preferences for what we deem important.”

Bowser, in response, emphasized the tough choices required to balance a $1.7 billion deficit, which she said generally meant returning programs to pre-pandemic levels of funding. The reduction from $43 million this year in ERAP spending to $8 million next year, she said, reflects the District’s increased employment levels compared to when the lack of a coronavirus vaccine hampered people’s ability to work and pay rent — though lawmakers noted that the increased ERAP funds for this year have already run out.

“We have to let the system normalize,” she said, asserting that the program is intended for people facing unexpected challenges. “There is a moral hazard to creating a program like this. … The ERAP program isn’t meant to say, ‘Oh, my rent is going up and I can’t close the gap, so I’m going to ERAP.’”

“But that is where we are. I mean, people are utilizing ERAP at a rapid pace,” White responded. “So there seems to be a need, and we’re reducing where they were getting it from without creating a new thing.”

On the Housing Production Trust Fund, which the mayor has funded with at least $100 million each year, Bowser reiterated that it was federal relief dollars that enabled her to invest $400 million over the last two years (her budget proposes enough funding to return to the $100 million funding level next year). When questioned, the mayor said she believes the city is still on track to reach her administration’s long-term goal of building 36,000 housing units by 2025.

“We can speak very eloquently about the programs we’re concerned with, show as much empathy as we can pour out for the poor, those that are without, but we also have to face the reality of where our dollars are coming from,” said council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who said she largely agreed with the mayor’s ideas.

D.C. public school budget proposal criticized for cuts

Bowser’s proposal to provide a 5.05 percent increase to the per-student funding formula — the primary source of funding for D.C.’s traditional public and charter schools — also received pushback from some lawmakers. Council members and education advocates have criticized Bowser’s proposal since last month, when initial budgets for the city’s traditional public schools revealed that dozens of campuses would lose money next year.

Bowser and D.C.’s education leaders have said school budgets are shrinking because of enrollment declines or programmatic changes, coupled with the looming expiration of local and federal coronavirus relief aid. School budgets will need to adjust to the loss of one-time funding, officials said.

But the cuts come as schools continue to weather a pandemic during which test scores have plummeted and emotional needs have grown. They also follow legislation from D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) that sought to make sure schools receive at least the same amount of money in their budgets as they did in the previous year.

On Friday, he argued that Bowser’s budget ignores the new law and said the council will make changes to the budget proposal to reflect that in the coming weeks. Bowser contended that declining enrollment plays a factor in how schools are funded, and said that her proposal is based on an equity model that targets money to schools that have more at-risk kids.

“We fully fund the equity model that we advance. The point that is obvious is if the council has a different view, then this is the opportunity for you to make those changes,” Bowser told Mendelson. “Every year, if the school budget is to go up by some certain percent regardless of the situation at the individual school, we have to ask ourselves, is that sustainable and equitable?”

Lauren Lumpkin contributed to this report.