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D.C. auditor says mayor’s budget is ‘not fiscally responsible’

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) delivers her annual State of the District address this month.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) delivers her annual State of the District address this month. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The D.C. official in charge of auditing government programs launched an unusual attack on the mayor’s proposed budget Monday, saying it is “not fiscally responsible” and could lead to the kind of spending that prompted a federal takeover of the city’s finances 24 years ago.

D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson said increased spending proposed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for the coming fiscal year would outstrip the growth in revenue forecast by the District’s chief financial officer.

Although the resulting budget would be balanced through tax increases, Patterson said, it would put the District on a path that is unsustainable in the long term. She invoked the specter of the financial control board that Congress established to oversee the city in the 1990s as it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy — a humiliating period when many basic powers were stripped from D.C. officials.

Patterson, a former three-term D.C. Council member who served on the body during that time, made her remarks during a committee hearing on her agency’s budget. She departed from that topic, however, to offer a broader warning about the trajectory of the city’s budgets.

“The budget is balanced, but the problem is you make it much harder for yourself in subsequent years by this rate of growth,” Patterson said in an interview after her testimony. “Next year we’ll have to sustain this rate of growth, and people will want to spend more. It just becomes untenable.”

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The auditor, who works for the D.C. Council, also noted the large amount the District is spending on debt repayment — more than $800 million, more than the police department’s budget.

A spokeswoman for Bowser issued a statement in response to Patterson’s remarks that read, in part: “The comments by Council’s auditors and $2 will get you a ride on the Metrobus. But thanks to the mayor’s Fair Shot budget proposal, you can save yourself reading the Council’s auditor’s comments and ride Circulator free forever.”

Bowser announced last week that she would permanently eliminate the $1 fare on the popular D.C. Circulator bus system.

Patterson’s comments were the latest attack on the budget Bowser released last week. The mayor has sought to highlight more than $50 million in new investments for affordable housing in her rapidly gentrifying city.

But critics have homed in on areas they say the budget shortchanges. Advocates say the mayor’s plan does not allocate enough money to homeless services or repairs to public housing, and some parents have expressed alarm at declining resources for schools in low-income neighborhoods. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) joined the critics regarding the mayor’s spending plan for schools, saying Friday that there is “very little, too little — scraps, relatively speaking — added for public education. And yet public education, more than anything else, is the true pathway to the middle class.”

At the same time, the District is contending with the effects of a slowing local economy and unpredictable policies affecting the city’s massive corps of federal employees. In a report issued last month, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt said the city would see almost no revenue growth during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

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Much of that hit came from the 35-day federal government shutdown, which cost the District an estimated $47 million in lost revenue. DeWitt predicts that revenue growth will pick back up to 4 percent in fiscal 2020.

Yet local spending for that year would increase by 8.2 percent under the mayor’s proposed budget, which is now under review and can be changed by the council.

To help cover that increase, Bowser wants to raise fees on high-end commercial real estate transactions and repeal a commercial property tax break adopted last year by the council. She also wants to withhold funding from some major planned programs, including one that would offer health and education services to infants and toddlers.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee, said he worried about a scenario in which the city could be forced to repeatedly raise taxes to cover runaway spending.

“I’m not sure I would say it’s an irresponsible budget,” said Evans, who like Patterson was on the council during the control board years. “But there are some cautionary flags that need to be raised.”

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