City Paper is not for tourists
On Thursday, Feb. 28, the Wilson Building reverberated with inflammatory statements from councilmembers accusing Mayor
Anthony A. Williams of running an administration that was “completely out of control,” “covering up with excuses,” and “violating both local and federal law.”
Had Inspector General Charles C. Maddox finally released the long-awaited findings on his investigation into the mayor’s fundraising practices?
Not so fast. Maybe next month.
LL scanned the occupants of Room 412: Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, and At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania were lambasting the city’s chief executive with varying levels of fury from the dais. But they weren’t speaking directly to Williams. In front of them at the witness table sat Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Natwar M. Gandhi, accompanied by members of his senior staff.
Catania accused Gandhi of being Williams’ partner in crime. “It’s illegal to spend more than the authorized budget!” Catania scolded Gandhi and his green-shaded colleagues. “[W]e have $247 million in illegal spending—which means that the mayor hasn’t been able to control his staff and live within his legal budget, and you have not been able to put in a legal regimen which prevents him from breaking the law!”
“This reminds me of the [Mayor-For-Life Marion S.] Barry [Jr.] and [Sharon Pratt] Kelly years,” Evans repeated twice.
Evans, Catania, & Co. were doing more than simply warming up for the council’s late-winter ritual of slamming the mayor over the budget. They were acting to protect their Tax Parity Act of 1999, a piece of legislation fueled by the late-’90s boom that defined the council as a formidable counterweight to Williams, who opposed the measure. The legislation reduced the city’s 9.5 percent top income tax rate in phases over five years, provided that the local economy furnish enough revenues to fund city services.
In fighting to save their lower tax rates, the council’s supply-siders have to battle not only a slumping economy but also the mayor’s budgetary recklessness.
On Feb. 27, councilmembers learned from Gandhi that agencies under Williams’ control had racked up $247 million in projected overspending in the current fiscal year. The “spending pressures,” as Gandhi and his staff prefer to label them, included $125 million of forecasted excess expenditures by D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), $29 million by the Department of Mental Health, and $15 million by the Department of Corrections.
Some spendthrift agencies have already identified cuts—including DCPS, which has reduced its prospective deficit to $90 million, according to documents recently released by the CFO. The impromptu budget-slashing would leave Williams with $173 million in unbudgeted expenditures.
On Wednesday, the D.C. Board of Education approved ad hoc spending safeguards to cover what it identifies as a $22.8 million projected shortfall this fiscal year. Yet its math doesn’t square with the $90 million in DCPS overspending projected by the CFO.
“They’re playing games with the numbers,” says Evans. “At the end of the day, they will have a huge deficit again, and what a deficit does is bring back a control board.”
Unless, of course, they can get more money from the taxpayers. When Gandhi met with councilmembers Feb. 27, he distributed two pages of financial-plan scenarios that graphically illustrated the District’s economic options. In eight out of nine scenarios, the line graphs clearly depicted expenditures exceeding revenues. The last graph showed expenditures and revenues congruent: That scenario projected a repeal of the Tax Parity Act.
Gandhi insisted the graph was merely illustrative, not polemical—a contention that wouldn’t fly with a majority on the council.
“Almost everyone at the council felt the CFO hurt himself by venturing into the political arena,” Evans later told LL. “He was either complicit or allowed himself to be used.”
“There is no basis for the assumptions in that graph,” says Catania. “When I asked him, he couldn’t explain them.”
Whatever the assumptions were, Williams agrees with them. The mayor recently suggested that a repeal of that act might greatly reduce the spending pressures. “So, I say to the council: Let’s put everything on the table, and that includes holding off on tax cuts until we can afford them,” he said in his State of the District address Tuesday.
In the current fiscal year, the economy is accomplishing that very goal by itself: Pursuant to a provision in the 1999 act, the Evans-Catania cuts are automatically stayed on account of slow growth, via a mechanism commonly referred to as a “trigger.”
Now, however, the council and the mayor are tussling over whether to resume the tax cuts in fiscal year 2003, when Williams needs to scare up approximately $200 million to balance his budget. Suspension of the tax cuts for that year would get the mayor more than one-fourth of the way there.
Evans doesn’t want to help out. In Tuesday’s legislative session, the council stood its ground, refusing to amend the aggressive tax-cut schedule for 2003. If the economy rebounds and the trigger that suspends the act is not activated, the income tax rate will sink to 8.7 percent, just as Evans and Catania promised three years ago.
If Williams insists on balancing the budget by messing with tax parity, Catania says, he’ll vote against the budget. That seems likely, given the Williams administration’s proposals so far for closing the current year’s gap: reducing library hours, charging fees at recreation programs, and reducing staff at rec centers.
LL has another suggestions for Williams’ deficit-cutting plan: Charge premium-tier rates for Channel 13.
Most high-profile politicians in Washington host get-togethers in which guests jockey to see and be seen. But that D.C. social maxim collapses when the host is Marion Barry, aka 2002 D.C. Council hopeful Barry. Last Saturday morning, Barry and his wife, Cora Masters Barry, threw a party that only a few brave souls have ‘fessed up to attending.
The occasion? The formal announcement and first organizational meeting of Barry’s exploratory committee. Barry plans to run as a Democrat challenging At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson and a growing field of candidates that might include Beverly Wilbourn and Eugene Dewitt Kinlow.
About 40 acolytes joined in Barry’s amen chorus. “Everyone who attended is convinced he’s running,” explains Lawrence Guyot, a longtime Barry supporter who is unafraid to be counted among Barry’s backers.
They’re right. On Wednesday, Barry confirmed the rumors that have been circulating for several weeks: He’s running.
Finances loom large in Hizzoner’s campaign. He is looking to gather close to $100,000 during the exploratory period. And until he formally announces his candidacy in May, he can raise and spend money without the hassle of campaign-finance reporting and restrictions.
Barry, it would seem, has been experiencing withdrawal from the municipal teat: Even close associates admit that he could use the $90,000 council salary. When he left office in 1998, Barry worked as a financial consultant. After threatening to run for an at-large seat in 2000, he said he would work on programs preventing youth violence.
The Saturday-brunch crowd was also privy to the ex-mayor’s platform, which he might as well have pulled out of his recycling bin. He expressed his vigorous support for the University of the District of Columbia, summer jobs for youth, publicly funded health care, and minority-owned businesses in the city. And Barry couldn’t gather a crowd of admirers without getting racial—specifically, decrying the ills of citywide gentrification.
This political contest, however, doesn’t need Barry’s rhetoric to inject a racial component: The outcome will hinge on whether Mendelson’s predominantly white, west-of-the-park vote will outnumber Barry’s largely African-American faithful, who mostly live east of the river.
The winner will be determined from the wards in between. The fewer the candidates, the more Barry benefits. If Wilbourn, Kinlow, and a few others divvy up the middle-class African-American vote, Mendelson will remain the smart-growth councilmember for another four years.
Barry did not respond to inquiries from LL for comment.
* Two years ago, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton shepherded legislation through the U.S. House of Representatives allowing D.C. and the territories to get their own commemorative quarters. Norton’s initiative was controversial because the bill’s original language specified only the 50 states.
Right now, Norton’s legislation is stuck in the Senate. At times like these, D.C. finds out who its friends are. One of them is certainly not Beth Deisher, editor of CoinWorld magazine: “The Citizens Commemorative Coin Advisory Committee in its newly released 2001 Annual Report to Congress may have inadvertently jumped headfirst into a political bed of embers that has been smoldering for the past 20 years—the question of statehood for the District of Columbia,” reads the editorial signed by Deisher.
Deisher goes on to argue against the District’s inclusion in the program.
“We’re denied our basic rights,” quips U.S. Shadow Senator Paul Strauss. “The least the country could do is spare us a quarter.”
* This fall, students at St. Augustine Catholic School at 1419 V St. NW will miss seeing Principal Shelore Williams in the hallways. Instead, they might talk about her in civics class: Williams has established an exploratory committee for the Ward 1 council seat.
“I’ve had seven great years at St. Augustine,” says Williams, who also serves as vice chair of the board of the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights. If she jumps into the race, she will face incumbent Jim Graham, as well as potential challenger Deairich “Dee” Hunter.
“What I’ve heard is that people have been misled, misinformed, misguided, and misunderstood by our current representative,” Williams argues. “The revitalization of our ward does not include children or families. It does not include involvement of all people in the ward, and it’s basically not for neighborhoods.”
“I’m going to be running on my record,” responds Graham. “I am very proud of my record of service to all the people in Ward 1. In my mind, there’s no substance to what Principal Williams is saying.”
Williams says she will make a decision whether to run by April.CP
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