Federal Presence in D.C. Regarded As Both an Asset And an AlbatrossBy Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 1997; Page A19
To listen to D.C. officials, one might imagine no greater burden than hosting the federal government. Its properties are tax-exempt, it shortchanges the city on pension payments, and its demands for services, from police to firefighters to roads, are burdensome.
Their complaints are not groundless. A recent Brookings Institution study estimated the hidden cost of the federal government to the city at $600 million, including the $281 million in annual pension costs that Congress forced the city to pick up 18 years ago.
But that doesn't take into account the enormous reciprocal benefits for the city, assistance that appears to far outweigh the money lost.
The federal government cares for 85 percent of Washington's parkland and rivers. It maintains 24 museums, a zoo, an arboretum and a performing arts center. The U.S. Park, Capitol and Treasury police make 6 percent of the city's felony arrests, and the U.S. attorney's office prosecutes all felony and most misdemeanor crimes. The federal government also pays the upkeep on the Memorial and Woodrow Wilson bridges across the Potomac River.
Behind this rumbles the economic turbine that is the federal government. It pumps $22.6 billion into the city economy, including wages and salaries for federal workers. Its agencies spend $4.5 billion a year on contracts with businesses based in the District.
All told, one in five city residents receive federal pay or a federal retirement check.
"We're a headquarters town; the federal government's dominance is 10 times that of the auto industry in Detroit," said Stephen S. Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. "Washington is not only number one in [benefiting from] federal spending, it's number one by so much that another city wouldn't show up on a graph."
This is a much undervalued relationship, critics say, one that city officials spend too much time decrying and too little time cultivating.
"All around the country, local officials lobby to have federal agencies locate in their cities and states," said Thomas P. Edmonds, a critic of the high cost of city services, who set up the first meeting between Mayor Marion Barry (D) and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "Only in Washington do we act like we're being put upon. Without the federal government, what rational citizen would put up with what passes for management in this city?"
The federal government's role as provider for Washington is massive and layered.
The federal police presence in Washington is without parallel. Federal officers help patrol 28 percent of the city, provide much of the coverage at many protests and parades and made 9,000 arrests last year. The 350-member U.S. Park Police covers the parks and the Suitland, George Washington Memorial and Baltimore-Washington parkways. A 1,100-member federal force patrols the federal buildings and a portion of Capitol Hill, and the 1,133 Secret Service uniformed officers help out throughout downtown.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has noted, however, that this large federal police force makes relatively few arrests, given the number of officers. She has sponsored a bill that would require the federal forces to patrol and make arrests across a far wider swath of the city.
Washington also reaps a bountiful harvest of federal grant money. Its share of this money -- including Medicaid -- jumped 11.9 percent in 1996, to $3.4 billion.
Last year, the Justice Department gave $15 million to the city's police department for new cars and computers. The Transportation Department advanced the city about $30 million for bridge and highway repairs. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development selected Washington to receive a federally financed community bank, which provides low-interest loans to small businesses and homeowners.
HUD officials also gave the District $12 million for a housing loan program and waived a requirement that the District match the federal money with its own tax dollars.
"Everyone complains how we got robbed by the federal government," said Anthony A. Williams, the city's chief financial officer. "The truth is, we've been lathered in money by the federal government."
That said, the federal government casts a vast shadow over the District, a canopy that can stunt growth and discourage creativity.
About 40 percent of Washington's property is owned by government and nonprofit companies and thus is tax-exempt. Congress prohibits the District from taxing commuters, an important source of revenue for most major northeastern cities. And Congress has set a 90-foot height ceiling on the city's buildings, precluding the high-rise office towers common even in mid-size American cities.
The city must provide expensive services, including Medicaid, mental health, drug treatment and prisons, that are typically underwritten by state and county governments. A congressional subcommittee recently moved to address some of those inequities, proposing to transfer the prisons to federal control and assume the cost of pensions incurred during the days of federal control of the city.
"When you include all the state and county functions, it's probably the greatest management challenge for anybody," Barry said. "It's unworkable for anybody. Given the imbalance, we have done a remarkable job of living within our means."
Few analysts are so sanguine. Several suggest that federal spending has a tranquilizing effect on Washington. They say that city officials, fiscally secure for more than two centuries in their federal cocoon, rarely pursue manufacturing and small businesses with as much vigor as other cities do.
"Suburban governments are increasingly thinking like businesses and aggressively pursuing the contract spinoffs from the federal government," said Fuller, the George Mason economist. "In D.C., they haven't reached that point."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company