The D.C. Council on Tuesday added millions to subsidize the District’s only public hospital and identified a new funding resource to repair the city’s deteriorated public housing stock with the final passage of a $15.5 billion budget for the next fiscal year.
The budget yielded mixed results for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who saw a partial victory in her push for a new Banneker High School campus but could not stop lawmakers from cutting other top priorities, including a workforce housing fund and free fares on Circulator buses.
In the end, the 13 members voted unanimously to approve the spending plan but not before disputes erupted — some of them unusually personal in tone — over issues of race and class and the best way to spend money.
The $15.5 billion budget dictates the city’s spending for the year starting Oct. 1. Local lawmakers have discretion over about $8.6 billion in the local portion of the budget and made final amendments Tuesday. The remainder of the budget is Medicaid and other federal money distributed according to formula.
The council approved a $22.1 million operating subsidy for the city-owned United Medical Center in Southeast. City officials want to close the hospital, which has been beset by financial trouble and operational lapses, and are negotiating with George Washington University Hospital to build and operate a new facility.
This month, lawmakers cut the subsidy to $15 million, far short of the $40 million sought by Bowser, which hospital officials said they needed to stay afloat and avoid staff and service reductions. After pressure from nurses and community activists, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) proposed an additional $4 million for the subsidy, while member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) pushed for an additional $7.1 million.
Ten council members voted for the larger subsidy increase, with member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), who chairs the health committee, and Mendelson opposed. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), a law professor at George Washington University, voted “present” because of a potential conflict of interest with her employer.
Before Tuesday’s vote, about two dozen demonstrators from the D.C. Nurses Association rallied outside city hall chanting “Save UMC” in a bid to protect the hospital funding.
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said lawmakers were putting lives at risk by slashing the subsidy.
“You are saying to some of our poorest, sickest residents — who are predominantly if not overwhelmingly black — at this hospital, ‘You don’t matter,’ ” Silverman said.
But critics of United Medical Center say the hospital has a track record of poor financial management.
“We can’t continue to write a blank check for what we have before us,” said Gray, who has pushed for years for a new hospital east of the Anacostia River.
The budget discussions featured frequent sniping among lawmakers, with the chairman often tangled in the middle.
Gray accused Mendelson of blindsiding him by proposing the United Medical Center subsidy increase, while the chairman retorted that he left two voice mails for Gray on Monday. In another instance, White used profanity to describe Mendelson’s comments on educational inequality.
The council found more harmony in the need to address public housing maintenance, which emerged as a top issue during the budget cycle because of a backlog in repairs and dangerous conditions at some units.
The council agreed with a proposal by Mendelson to tap an additional $1 million for public housing from revenue that would have gone to a tax abatement for the Line hotel in Adams Morgan.
The abatement, valued at $46 million over two decades, is endangered because the hotel failed to meet local hiring requirements on the project, city officials found.
“The jobs that were lost can be made into something good and something positive for our residents,” said council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1).
The Bowser administration offered to waive the hiring requirements in exchange for a $600,000 payment from the developer, but Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) recently determined that deal was not legal.
But the Sydell Group, which owns the hotel, has said it met the original terms of the abatement and intends to claim it.
Lawmakers also approved a transfer of $49 million from the reserves of the Washington Convention and Sports Authority to fix public housing, among other things — despite opposition from the city’s independent chief financial officer.
Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt warned that shifting money from the convention center reserves violates the District’s pledges to bondholders whose investments funded the facility’s construction and could prompt a credit downgrading.
The issue was not resolved Tuesday and could result in DeWitt declining to certify the budget passed by the council. Mendelson said the council should consider formally challenging DeWitt’s finding if he attempts to block lawmakers from tapping the reserves.
The council also freed up more than $15 million by cutting a tax incentive program for technology companies that has come under scrutiny. That money will be spent on school mental-health services, 200 new units of subsidized housing and lead remediation, among other programs.
The council also voted Tuesday to move up the 2020 local and presidential primary election date to the first Tuesday of June instead of the third Tuesday.
The mayor and others wanted to hold the primary even earlier, in April, so that the District could vote earlier in the presidential nominating contest. Critics said such a move would benefit incumbents by giving challengers less time to campaign.