Last Friday evening, LL was hunting for a parking spot by Freedom Plaza. There were plenty of open spaces in front of the John A. Wilson Building, but they’re reserved for our hard-working D.C. councilmembers. Yet the only politically oriented vehicle still around was a blue 1998 Mercury Mystique, wheels belonging to At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson.
Had Mendelson’s Detroit engineering broken down? Or had the air-quality maven decided to reduce emissions by hopping aboard Metro?
As it turns out, Mendelson was holed up in his fourth-floor office working over numbers related to the city’s property taxes. And Friday wasn’t the only night he put in a little overtime. When LL happened to walk by Saturday night, the Mystique had moved a spot or two eastward.
The weekend shifts paid off for Mendelson at a Tuesday session of the D.C. Council, which voted to table a drastic property-tax relief measure that the at-large councilmember has been fighting for weeks.
“I’m truly offended by the inequities,” says Mendelson of the original proposal. “Everybody would be paying different tax rates, and that’s unfair.”
As his parking logs attest, Mendelson plunges enthusiastically into the minutiae of council business. Yet during his five-year tenure, the hardest-working man in the Wilson Building has often been rapped for putting long hours into token, meaningless legislation and wasting his colleagues’ time quibbling about such technicalities as emergency legislation.
In July, the councilmember introduced his Nutritional Information at Restaurants Act of 2003, which would force chain restaurants in the District to print the caloric content of their meals on menus. The bill’s buzz downtown matches the conventional wisdom about its author, who is said to be tedious, peripheral, and pushed by advocacy groups hostile to business.
Nutritional fixations and all, Mendelson has matured into one of the most important legislative overseers in the Wilson Building.
That’s not to say that the councilmember has given up the pet issues that inspire snickering among his colleagues. He still champions regional air-quality standards, wants to alter the D.C. flag, and wasted a goodly portion of 2003 trying to save Klingle Valley from vehicular traffic.
But Mendelson speaks up on the big issues as authoritatively as on the small onesthat is, always with a solid set of facts behind him. These days, he’s shaping the debate on some municipal issues even though he has a puny pulpitthe chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Public Interestfrom which to speak.
Mendelson’s crusade on the property-tax front began back in December, when the council’s leading voices on fiscal policy, At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania and Committee on Finance and Revenue Chair Jack Evans, presented their plan to colleagues for approval. The idea was to place a 10 percent cap on the property-tax increases that a homeowner would receive in a given year. The city’s renaissance, coupled with a switch to annual property-tax assessments, has created a dynamic in which many D.C. residents have seen the assessed values of their homes soar.
In 2003, the average assessment for homeowners in 16th Street Heights increased by an average of 71 percent. Many other neighborhoods saw average increases of 20 percent or more. No one wants to pay the corresponding tax bills in one lump.
The whopping tax bills spurred the Evans-Catania legislation, which built upon a successful effort two years ago to cap annual property tax increases at 25 percent.
Referred to by some of his colleagues as one of the council’s Bolsheviks, Mendelson has been a foe of the tax-cutting duo for some time. The at-large councilmember was one of two members to vote against the Evans and Catania- authored Tax Parity Act of 1999, which attempted to lower the District’s income-tax rate. “[T]here is nothing about this proposal that could be described as ‘reform,’” Mendelson wrote in a May 2, 1999, piece in the Washington Post. “It ignores the embarrassing fact that our lower-income residentssome earning below the poverty levelpay a disproportionate share of taxes.”
Mendelson offers a similar objection to the regressivity of Evans and Catania’s recent effort. He argues that the 10 percent cap unfairly benefits wealthy District residents. Here’s the councilmember’s logic: Less affluent D.C. neighborhoods, obviously, haven’t experienced the property-value boom of the city’s most prosperous zones. Accordingly, the Evans-Catania plan throws an economic lifeline to the embattled residents of D.C. neighborhoods such as Cleveland Park, Shepherd Park, and Chevy Chase, among others.
And it offers much less to, say, a homeowner in Congress Heights, where tax assessments went up 11.74 percent on average in 2003. The Evans-Catania cap will save those folks a whole 1.74 percent on their tax bills.
Mendelson’s meddling in matters of tax and revenue affairs has irritated the Grover Norquists on the council. “I’m going to drop a house on your head!” Catania warned after Mendelson introduced an alternative to the 10 percent cap at the Dec. 2 legislative session.
“I don’t know what he’s proposing. It changes by the hour,” Evans told a crowd of Dupont Circle residents Monday night in an effort to rally support for the 10 percent cap. “Phil Mendelson hates tax caps.”
Not exactly. The councilmember’s latest proposal offers a two-pronged relief package, increasing the city’s homestead exemption to $50,000which means that a homeowner with a $100,000 house would be taxed on only $50,000and imposing a 20 percent property-tax-increase cap. “The homestead benefits everybody; the cap does not,” says Mendelson.
The fairness argument convinced eight of his 12 colleaguesincluding Chairman Linda W. Croppto spend more time examining the Mendelson alternative. Cropp says that she will bring up the property-tax legislation in two weeks. Mendelson believes that’s enough time to get at least seven converts to his way of thinking. “I hope I can embarrass folks that [the Evans-Catania bill] is unfair,” adds Mendelson.
Mendelsonian economics has clearly gotten to his colleagues, who were blindsided by their colleague’s legislative maneuver. They argue that Mendelson’s numbers don’t add up to significant tax relief. Evans accused Mendelson of “headline grabbing” in the Washington Post.
If “headline grabbing” means nagging high-ranking officials over inadequate services, then Evans’ characterization fits just fine. Mendelson headed a council inquiry about problems at the city’s 911 call center, which drew increased scrutiny after a fatal fire in Dupont Circle last winter. Mendelson insisted that fire and police officials were not giving the public honest numbers about how many call takers were on duty at the time.
Mendelson’s pointed questioning so bothered Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey that he publicly lashed out at the legislator.
In the end, Ramsey had to correct his statements about the number of call takers on duty and staffing overall.
Mendelson is helping to fill the leadership vacuum on D.C. public schools, as well. In recent months, Mendelson and Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson have initiated lunchtime meetings with D.C. Board of Education members, who praise Mendelson for taking time to listen to their concerns and trying to get an understanding of schools budgeting issues. Mendelson also rivals his colleague Patterson in his letter-writing prowess: The pol was after recently departed Superintendent Paul L. Vance for months to get a copy of the FY 2004 budget.
Mendelson says he still hasn’t gotten a line-item copy.
In other matters involving the Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation, Mendelson has become the council’s personal gadfly for State Education Office Director C. Vannessa Spinner, who administers the city’s feeding program for underprivileged kids. In multiple hearings last year, Mendelson questioned Spinner about staffing and funding issues. Mendelson’s suspicions, we now know, were right on target: A recently released report shows that the office hasn’t used $5 million in federal dollars available to feed the city’s impoverished children.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Mendelson’s progress over five years on the council comes from his colleagues, who remain annoyed with his work. “In many ways, he doesn’t have enough to do,” assessed Evans Monday night.
•On Nov. 15, nearly 3,000 residents filled the Washington Convention Center for Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ Citizen Summit III. Williams-administration officials touted the event as the most successful of the municipal complaint-fests.
The citizen summits have been the pet projects of Neighborhood Action Executive Director Beverley Wheeler. Wheeler tells LL that the summit “kicked butt.”
So why did the administration kick Wheeler out of her job three weeks later?
Wheeler says Chief of Staff Kelvin J. Robinson delivered the news Dec. 5, telling her that the administration wanted to take Neighborhood Action in a “new direction.”
Wheeler asked to speak with the mayor. “‘If I have failed him, I want to find out what I did,’” Wheeler remembers saying. “I was never allowed to speak to the mayor.”
Robinson says that the “work Ms. Wheeler did provided great foundation for establishing Neighborhood Action.”
So why the boot?
“Sometimes we don’t need to make sense to you or your readers. We have a number of things we’re trying to balance in the administration,” offers Robinson.
PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY POTPOURRI
•In Iowa, presidential hopefuls pander to farmers. In New Hampshire, they try to appeal to the state’s “Live Free or Die” sensibilities.
And in the final days before Jan.13’s first-in-the-nation D.C. primary, aspiring commanders in chiefs are apparently gunning for the city’s hipster vote. This Friday, Carol Moseley Braun rallies supporters at the swank Bar Rouge near Thomas Circle, Dennis J. Kucinich lunches with his crowd at Mimi’s American Bistro in Dupont Circle, and the Howard Dean campaign holds an evening benefit concert at the Black Cat featuring Los Hermanos Rodriguez.
Yet Dean won’t be rockin’ out to Noskilz vs. King Bass, Citizen Cope, or any of the other bands performing. He’s also skipping out on a presidential debate earlier that day airing on WTOP radio featuring fellow D.C. ballot contenders Moseley Braun, Kucinich, and Al Sharpton. After having locked up endorsements from most of the city’s elected leadership months ago and with a commanding lead in the polls, Dean is opting to spend his time elsewhere.
“I’m not insulted that he’s not coming,” says Paul McKenzie, who has been involved with the D.C. for Dean effort. “I don’t believe the voters of the District of Columbia are insulted, either….He told me face to face he was concerned about voting rights for the District of Columbia. He wants us represented in Congress.”
Hipsters or not, LL encourages all registered D.C. Democrats and Statehood Green Party members to vote in next Tuesday’s primary. Elissa Silverman
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