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As David Catania and Jack Evans’ hotly debated tax-cut plan passed a D.C. Council vote this week, the authors took pains to portray their bill as a painless piece of public policy that the long-suffering District had earned. “We’re collecting more than we’re spending,” chanted Catania at an April 26 council hearing on the plan.
“The plan doesn’t require cuts,” Evans told LL.
To arrive at their rosy conclusion, however, Catania and Evans relied on their own numbers and projectionsas opposed to the numbers and projections of the mayor’s Office of Tax and Revenue. And as opposed to the numbers and projections of the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The consensus emerging from those corners of D.C. not smitten with fantasies of turning the District into Grand Cayman on the Potomac is that the cuts will cost us. The only questions are how much and whether it’s worth it.
The tax cuts have brought out the latent Anthony A. Williams in everyone in town, prompting street-corner talk of “out-year deficits” and “revenue projections.” But unlike debates over other civic issueslike the convention center and a Ward 8 prisonthe tax-cut controversy has yielded more frustration than consensus. With conflicting projections competing for headline space in the local dailies, no one knows which numbers represent a realistic sketch of the city’s fiscal future.
Budgetary sleight of hand aside, one cold fact of the Evans-Catania plan remains: It means the “temporary” spending lapses dating back to D.C.’s 1995 budget crisis will become permanent, and it means the city will struggle to find new money for long-overlooked basic imperatives. Here’s a thumbnail sketch:
•Education. The eternal crisis in the District’s public schools is sending pupils to charter schools by the classroom. “Existing charter schools are adding new grades, and new ones are opening up,” says Mary Levy, a schools budget expert with the advocacy group Parents United. Levy says the migration could cost the treasury more than $30 million. And the city can’t simply subtract that amount from the public school budget and deposit it in the charter school account. “The kids can’t just take their $6,000 [allotment] with them to the charters,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson. The few bucks a month Evans and Catania’s bill will save most taxpayers won’t attract many new residents if their kids’ schools are broke.
•Public Works. The Department of Public Works’ fleet is a rolling, creaking study in antique truck design. While most other jurisdictions recycle their entire stock every five years, the District relies on decade-old models that siphon off budget funds in maintenance costs. Correcting the problem, according to council projections, will cost
$10.9 million over four yearsan appropriation that is at risk of not finding a home in the current budget cycle. “It is a concern,” says a council source. Media images of trash piling up on sidewalks have a way of undoing the positive municipal image that tax-cut proponents say their measure will create.
•Substance Abuse. Tax-relief naysayers have blasted the current plan as a betrayal of the city’s obligation to the poor. By forswearing promises of program upgrades in the coming years, the argument goes, the District gives up on mending the safety net ravaged by the mid-’90s cuts. Though welfare reform clouds the issue somewhat, the substance-abuse picture is pretty clear: From 1994 to 1998, the treatment capacity of the D.C. Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration has dropped by over 50 percentand none of the budget proposals on the table this year would fill the gap. “Every time I ask about boosting funds for programs like this, I’m told we don’t have the money,” said Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham at a May 3 press conference sponsored by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. If the slashers can’t be swayed by human concern, they should realize that untreated junkies walking the streets create their own form of tax on the residents Catania and Evans say they want to help.
•Homeless Services and Emergency Assistance. Homeless advocates agree that funding levels for local shelters aren’t sufficient to handle current levels of dislocation. Part of the reason is that homeless grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development dried up in March. Patterson advocates $5.3 million to fill the hole but wonders where it will come from. It’s similarly unclear what will happen to the emergency assistance programphased out in 1996that distributed grants to D.C. residents on the brink of homelessness.
The job of highlighting the sacrifices required by the Evans-Catania bill fell to freshman At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson. In his first shot at the council limelight, Mendelson has proved no match for the juggernaut led by Evans and Catania. Intellectually honest andunlike the mayor, who has spent the last week vacillatingconsistent in his position, Mendelson nonetheless hasn’t built an anti-cuts coalition either inside or outside the council. And though he’s gained some traction a month into the debate, he could never have derailed a bill backed by a supermajority on the eve of a highly anticipated vote.
“I know there’s a lot of cutting that has to be done to pay for this,” says Mendelson, highlighting one of his two core concerns about the proposal. The other is that the Evans-Catania cuts are more regressive than a poll tax. “Nobody at the poverty level should have to pay taxes,” he said at the May 3 press conference.
The councilmember’s objections mimic the recommendations of the D.C. Tax Revision Commission, a panel he helped create when he served as a budget aide to the late council Chairman Dave Clarke. “The bill does nothing to make the income tax progressive,” said Mendelson in an April 15 press release. “The middle-class taxpayer is lumped in with the millionaires, and the top bracket still begins at $20,000.”
Even Evans concedes that Mendelson’s thoughtful critique merits consideration. “I’m all in favor of getting people at the poverty level off the tax rolls,” says Evans.
Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose says she tried to get Mendelson to participate in the coalition before the current plan was unveiled. “I told him, ‘We can all get something of our proposals in this package,’ and he said noif you’ve got a big package, you couldn’t do his totally different approach.” Mendelson counters that the tax-cut alliance showed “no flexibility” toward his position.
Having lost the initiative, Mendelson, a longtime planning activist, must retreat to a familiar patch of turfquibbling about process. “This bill is not even three weeks old,” said Mendelson at the press conference. “There’s barely been time to discuss these issues….We have to focus on trying to slow this down.”
That sounds like Mendelson’s mantra. “Phil needs to learn to read faster,” jokes Evans, pointing out that Mendelson has tried his deceleration strategy with several other council initiatives this year.
Although Evans, Catania, et al. steamrolled their soft-spoken colleague on Tuesday, they’d be well-advised to draft a negotiating strategy addressing the points he raised. Those very issues may well spill forth from control board Chair Alice Rivlin, who just this week joined the council-mayor negotiations on the tax cut.
And if Rivlin decides that the tax-cut plan needs more debate, it could spend years at the council.
PLANNING A COUP
After the D.C. Council last spring approved funding for the new convention center at Mount Vernon Square, Committee of 100 on the Federal City Chair Tersh Boasberg announced that his group would not press its opposition to the project on Capitol Hill. And this year, when Mayor Williams and other heavy hitters waxed orgasmic about a downtown baseball stadium, Boasberg issued a statement against the proposal but organized no opposition.
That’s enough waffling for the District’s oldest and most powerful city-planning coalition, according to committee dissidents. Last week, 26 “friends” of the committeepolitical handyman Howard Croft, Capitol Hill land-use advocate Dick Wolf, former journalist Bill Rice, and former council aide Ann Hughes Hargrove, to name a fewasked Boasberg to convene a special meeting addressing complaints about his leadership. Their three-page letter focuses on procedural matters, like disclosure of budget figures and parliamentary protocol, but the real issue appears to be Boasberg’s coziness with the mayor. Disgruntled members insist that the relationship explains his muted response to the mayor’s pet projects.
Of course, the “friends” couch their substantive objections in oblique references to conflicts of interest: “[T]he Committee appears to be increasingly drawn into a series of politically charged issues where the interests of the organization and the personal interests of its leadership must be clearly delineated,” reads the letter. “These include the convention center, the baseball stadium, and the search by the Mayor for a new planning director.”
Translation: Committee supporters don’t trust Boasberg to carry their banner. An establishmentarian lawyer, Boasberg has been a stalwart supporter of Williams since his campaign began last June, and critics say he’s now toeing the party line on Williams-backed monoliths like the convention center and the baseball stadium. “I am concerned that the convention center thing was not followed through to its complete conclusion,” says Hargrove, who has also bemoaned the committee’s soft opposition to the baseball stadium. Boasberg’s passivity, argue several members, tarnishes the reputation of a group that fought back ’50s highway projects that would have strangled downtown communities.
Boasberg dismisses the criticism by pointing to the committee’s expansion from fewer than 100 members to about 225 in three years. “Communication is hard with 225 members,” says Boasberg. And the chair takes the criticism of his leadership against the convention center as a personal slight: “I devoted a great deal of my life to the convention center fight, and we lost,” he says, adding that the committee’s opposition to the baseball stadium is outlined in a Feb. 23 statement. “We have written the mayor about it.”
But some of the “friends” insist that polite letters to One Judiciary Square are about as far as Boasberg is willing to go. The reason, they say, is that Boasberg is politicking for a post in the Williams administration, perhaps as director of the Office of Planning or as chair of the National Capital Revitalization Corp., which will administer over $50 million in grant money for economic development projects. “He’s looking for a lot of power,” says a critic. “And he is so in thick with Williams that you can’t believe it.”
“I am not angling for a job,” responds Boasberg, who nonetheless would not commit to refusing a Williams administration post.
Under committee rules, Boasberg has until May 12 to convene a meeting on the issues raised in the letter. “I’m delighted to have a meeting,” says the embattled chair. “The more the merrier.”
When Rice announced a fundraiser to retire debt from his failed 1998 at-large council bid, Evans said he wanted to help. No surprise there: The two have supported each other since the early ’90s, when Evans used his chair on the Dupont Circle advisory neighborhood commission to vault to his council perch. “He has been a friend of mine for about 10 years,” says Rice.
Rice, however, responded to his friend’s pledge of support with a surprising stiffarm. Was it Evans’ position on the Dupont Circle liquor license moratorium that did it? Could it have been his stance on tax cuts? Had the Ward 2 councilmember made off with the famously pedal-powered former journalist’s bicycle helmet?
Not quite. Fundraiser hostess Marilyn Groves refuses to let Evans past her front door. “My husband and I get to decide who comes to our house,” says Groves. “Am I sending a message? Yes.”
The message comes with no encryption codes: Dupont Circle’s premier activists aren’t forgiving Evans for siding with the enemy in their struggle against H.H. Leonards and her elegant O Street Mansion. Groves and the Dupont Circle Citizens Association have waged a legal battle to strip the mansion of its liquor license. “He has been terribly insensitive to the needs of the community,” says Dupont Circlite Phil Polivchak.
The lockout adds to the enigma of Evans’ appeal: While the loudest voices want him booted, they haven’t yet converted the masses, who re-elected Evans with 80 percent of the vote in the 1996 primary. The councilmember insists he’s still welcome at the homes of those folks. “The response has been positive everywhere I’ve gone,” says Evans.CP
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