A few years back, when everyone in the city was going apeshit over plans for a city-financed ballpark, Mayor Anthony A. Williams & Co. devised a way to get local politicos on board with a stadium. They called it the Community Benefit Fund: A portion of the ballpark-related revenue would be used to, you know, benefit the community.
Sandy Allen, then the Ward 8 councilmember, was promised tens of millions for development projects in her ward. Vincent B. Orange Sr., then the Ward 5 councilmember, got $12 million for pet projects of his own, including laptops for kids at McKinley Tech High School. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham got $45 million for city libraries. And Williams got what he wanted: Allen and Orange ended up voting for the stadium deal, swinging the tally in favor of the stadium.
The Community Benefit Fund was set up to buy more than votes: It was projected to eventually swell to $450 million, but only about half of that was allocated in the ballpark deal. The rest of the spoils, according to the legislation passed at the time, would be divvied to worthy neighborhood causes through a process that included extended comment periods and “input from Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, community groups, the faith community, representatives of the labor community, representatives of the business community, and other community stakeholders.”
This budget cycle will be the first time the Community Benefit Fund actually has any money to be divvied. Forget $450 million, though: According to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s proposed budget, only $2.23 million is projected to flow into the fund, and none of that will be going toward any of the things Williams had promised, says mayoral budget czar William Singer. “Those were and always have been totally empty promises,” he says.
OK, fine—bring on the stakeholder input, right?
Nope—Fenty plans to replace all those procedures with the following sentence: “The Mayor, through the annual budget process, may make a request for an appropriation for expenditures from the Community Benefit Fund.”
In other words, the porkification of the District budget continues apace.
A “request for appropriation” after all, is basically carte blanche for Hizzoner to send ballpark money anywhere he damn well pleases. And so he has: This year’s mayoral budget proposal identified eight nongovernment groups and projects to get an estimated $2.23 million, including a half mil each for the Greater Washington Sports Alliance and the Lincoln Theater, plus $398,000 to “explore the feasibility of a D.C. Children’s Museum.”
Don’t expect much opposition on the D.C. Council: The mayor may have the power to request an appropriation, but the council has the power to approve those appropriations. Last week, the council’s economic development committee, chaired by At-Large Councilmember Kwame R. Brown, rearranged about half of the ballpark dollars—taking about $1.1 million away from the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Children’s Museum study, and the Sports Alliance and steering it to entities “more in keeping with the intended uses of the Fund,” like a fashion merchandising program at UDC. But the panel essentially endorsed Fenty’s maneuver, all but ensuring that the budget will continue to be nicely porked with ballpark dollars for years to come.
“It’s just frustrating that a mechanism that was designed to soften the blow of a baseball stadium is being ignored in the first year that it has any money,” says budget maven Ed Lazere, head of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “It’s being treated as a slush fund.”
Fenty’s new approach to “community benefits” comes amid a Golden Age for pork in the District. The practice of steering public money to groups outside government without a competitive bidding process or standard oversight procedures has been an increasingly common practice in Congress for more than 30 years, but it only first appeared in D.C. budgets starting earlier this decade. And only in the past three years has it become a genuine phenomenon.
How much of a phenomenon? For the current fiscal year, D.C. politicos handed out just shy of $50 million in earmarks. For what the District doled out in pork, you could run the entire D.C. Public Library system.
For fiscal 2009, the earmarks seem to have been reined in a tad—so far. The $2.23 million grabbed out of the ballpark money is only pittance of the nearly $27 million in earmarks that Fenty has proposed—including a hefty $10 million for a Ford’s Theatre visitor’s center. And as the council gets its paws on the budget, that figure will only increase (see below, for instance, the actions of the committee on public works and the environment).
It’s rare to hear members of the council speak out against earmarking; pretty much the only one is At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, who regularly decries the practice from the dais. She says there’s hypocrisy in the fact that her colleagues have decried sole-source contracts awarded by the mayor while awarding earmarks that are, essentially, sole-source contracts. Schwartz says she tries to lead by example: “I don’t do it,” she says. “Even if my colleagues send money my way, I don’t take it.”
The pork epidemic got a bit of attention last year when Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. stripped out a $500,000 earmark for the Historical Society of Washington—money which ended up in the coffers of the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Office of Latino Affairs, and nonprofit Cease Fire…Don’t Smoke the Brothers. The Historical Society money was eventually restored, but not before a number of hand-wringing op-eds and editorials and a pledge from Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray to get a handle on D.C. pork.
The result is a 40-page report prepared by the council’s policy analysis office presented to councilmembers in March. Among its conclusions: Earmarks diminish “the critical element of competition for grants” and that “certain recipients can become overly dependent on this mechanism as opposed to competing for governmental assistance or raising funds in the private sector.”
Take the case of Time Dollar Youth Court, a program which asked this year for its second consecutive earmark. Carolyn Dallas, the group’s executive director, took withering questioning from Gray at an April 25 hearing, focusing on the group’s inability to find funding from other sources. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson ended up inserting $400,000 for Time Dollar into his budget report, but Gray says that money will have strings attached.
Next year, Gray promises, the earmark process will get a whole lot more difficult. Proposed changes to council rules would require, for instance, that members who want pork payments file a report certifying the group’s bona fides and explaining exactly what the money would be used for. The proposal also limits the amount of funds that can be granted, prohibits groups from getting earmarks in consecutive years, and imposes a random audit requirement. And to prevent a repeat of the Historical Society spectacle, all amendments from the council dais would be banned. Gray says he’s confident the changes will be in place before the council’s summer recess.
Now, is all earmarking bad? Not if you ask the godfather of the modern earmark era, At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania, who essentially pioneered the practice when he took over the chair of the health committee in 2005. His motivation over the years, he says, hasn’t been to score political points, but to better use dollars wasted by a “gout-ridden” budget and to circumvent sluggish procurement processes. And he’s not shy about taking credit for what the earmarks have accomplished. “It was not an invisible hand that moved that money,” he says. “It was my hand.”
This year, thanks to better management at the agencies he oversees, Catania says he’s scaled back his porcine ways.
Catania says his earmarks have always been “subject to strict guardrails”—recipients have to submit a detailed budget, for one, and appear before his committee. He says he supports Gray’s reform efforts, though when pressed about the no-consecutive-earmarks rule—he’s supported several groups for four years running—he said, “I don’t think any of these recommendations are definitive.”
Gray says that, though he’s trying to rein in the pork, there’s room for “good” earmarks in the District budget. Certain groups, he says, just don’t fit into your run-of-the-mill request-for-proposals process—take, for instance, the Special Olympics, he says.
“What RFP process do they fit in?” Gray asks.
Jim Graham hates it, hates it when anyone suggests that he, though a politician, engages in anything that could be portrayed as political machination. LL gets an earful, for instance, whenever he suggests that Graham exerts suzerainty over the Alcoholic Beverage Control board.
Well, sorry, councilmember—LL’s going to expose you as a political animal again. But that’s only to commend you on your craftsmanship—you see, the budget report issued by Graham’s committee is a true masterpiece of the porkly arts.
First of all, the report proposes an awfully clever mechanism for raising money to earmark: With Fenty’s blessing, the committee recommends adding dozens of new parking officers to ticket on nights and weekends and nailing more folks who keep out-of-state-registered cars in the District. That move, city financial wonks estimate, will net the District almost $12 million in fines.
That’s a relatively small pot of money as far as earmark cash goes, but Graham’s made the most of it. About half of that money is going to things like graffiti abatement, litter pickup, mural painting, pedestrian safety—stuff that gets spread out across all eight wards. But here’s how the other half is being spent (with a hat tip to Dorothy Brizill).
Deep breath now:
$100,000 for the Lower Georgia Avenue Job Training Center, an employment services outfit located in…Ward 1; $190,000 to extend a business improvement district study into…Ward 1; $1 million for the Columbia Heights/Shaw Family Support Collaborative to support a project based at Bruce-Monroe Elementary, which is located in…Ward 1; $100,000 for the Columbia Heights Youth Club, which serves a neighborhood located in…Ward 1; $100,000 for the Reeves Recovery Group, a rehab program based in…Ward 1; $1.2 million for the Lincoln Theatre, located in the heart of the historic U Street corridor in…Ward 1; $100,000 to Neighbors’ Consejo, a nonprofit that does much of its valuable work in…Ward 1; $100,000 to Fiesta DC, which holds its splendid annual Latino festival on Mount Pleasant Street NW in…Ward 1; an extra $200,000 for a nonprofit called PROUrbanYouth, about which Graham once boasted in a listserv post as “a program that I have found the funds for and helped establish”—and a program that does much of its work in…Ward 1; $275,000 for the Office of Latino Affairs, which serves a population that is particularly concentrated in…Ward 1; $1.4 million for opening up Champlain Street NW at Marie Reed Learning Center, a school located in…Ward 1; $200,000 for an archeological team from Howard University to investigate lost cemeteries at Walter Pierce Park, located in…Ward 1; $140,000 to nonprofit Washington Parks & People to create a new park from vacant properties located in…Ward 1; $400,000 to rehab an alley that runs through Square 394, a plot of land located in…Ward 1; $450,000 to restore historic murals and the ceiling dome at the Tivoli Theatre, a fabulous facility located in…Ward 1; $200,000 to redevelop the old Source Theatre, an arts space located in the heart of…Ward 1; $300,000 for the Dance Institute of Washington, an arts-education nonprofit whose home base is in…Ward 1; $100,000 to the Ethiopia Community Service and Development Council, a group uprooted by the huge March fire in Mount Pleasant, which is in…Ward 1; $100,000 to the Vietnamese-American Community Service Center, a nonprofit headquartered at the Josephine Butler Parks and Recreation Center, located in…Ward 1; $150,000 to the D.C. Caribbean Carnival and Festival, which is held along Georgia Avenue NW in Ward 4 and…Ward 1; $100,000 for a “responsibility zone” pilot program in Mount Pleasant, located in…Ward 1; and $100,000 to preserve historic elements of the Avalon, an apartment building that burned last October in Adams Morgan, which is in…Ward 1.
Graham, asked about his earmarking habits, initially tries to play down the idea that he’s simply bringing home the bacon: “The lines are a lot more unclear than you would think at first glance,” he says. Upon further questioning, however, Graham points out that he is merely trying to rectify a lack of attention from the executive branch, pointing LL to the list of mayoral earmarks: “How many grants are from Ward 1?” he asks—and answers: “Zero!”
Finally, Graham owns up: “I’m an advocate for Ward 1,” Graham says. “I’m elected to be there to represent Ward 1.”
LL, who has lived and worked in Ward 1 for four years, says: Thanks, Jim!
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