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On Groundhog Day 1995, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. sent D.C. statehood dreamers scurrying back into their burrows with the announcement that he was ready to return much of the city to Congress.

But Groundhog Day 1996—Feb. 2—found Hizzoner acting more like Punxsutawney Phil. After touting the results of a new city audit all day on Feb. 1, Barry spent the next day trying to stay out of the public spotlight. Like the famed Pennsylvania groundhog, Barry seemed scared to come out in the open for fear he would see a shadow—not his own shadow, but the looming specters of control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer or Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Anthony Williams.

(Here’s a little LL fantasy: What if Barry’s Groundhog Day had resembled Groundhog Day, the movie? Like the Bill Murray character, Barry would be condemned to live the day over and over again until he got it right. He would have balanced the budget, slashed the payroll, canceled his cronies’ contracts, and apologized to all the Washingtonians he’s wronged. District residents would have awakened last Saturday to a miraculously prosperous city. LL can dream, can’t we?)

Barry had good reason to duck Brimmer and Williams. Groundhog Day 1996 was supposed to have been the time when the mayor announced his long-awaited plan for transforming the dilapidated D.C. government into a streamlined, low-cost machine. It was also the day the mayor was scheduled to unveil the city’s four-year budget plan.

Actually, Congress had set Feb. 1 as the deadline for the four-year plan. But the mayor runs on Barry Time—one day late is virtually on time for Hizzoner. Barry spent Feb. 1 discussing the FY 1995 audit and patting himself on the back for halving the city’s overall deficit. But instead of delivering the two long-term plans on Feb. 2, Barry poked his head out only briefly to announce he would not present them for two weeks.

Now it’s time for a Loose Lips Quiz. What reasons did the mayor cite for delaying his actions until Feb. 16? (No peeking at your officemate’s answer!)

a.) Congress still hasn’t approved the city’s budget for FY 1996, which began Oct. 1. So why should Hizzoner be expected to abide by the Feb. 1 deadline?

b.) Too much snow fell on the city in January. Barry had hundreds of residential streets to not plow. He and his advisers could not be distracted by picayune matters like the future of the entire government.

c.) The federal government shut down for nearly a month. (The D.C. government processed all those unemployment claims filed Dec. 18, the day of the shutdown. Those workers finally received a letter on Feb. 1 telling them how much their weekly unemployment checks would be. Now the D.C. government is preparing another mailing to inform these workers they won’t be able to collect those checks because the shutdown is over. How’s that for generating paperwork?)

d.) Williams was not ready. Never mind that Williams said he was ready; Barry didn’t believe him. After all, how could Williams be ready when Barry had dumped a pile of new duties on the CFO in mid-January, including preparation of budgets and collection of taxes and revenues?

e.) Williams and Brimmer are feuding, and Barry didn’t want to get in the middle of it. Barry claimed that Williams wanted the Feb. 1 deadline extended, and Brimmer refused. Williams says there was no feud.

f.) The control board hasn’t decided on the $150 million in additional spending cuts that Congress ordered in this year’s budget. Actually, Barry was ordered to make those cuts, but the control board viewed his recommendations, outlined in a Dec. 27 letter to Brimmer, as about as realistic as the mayor’s snow-removal promises. The board dismissed another Barry plan in early January because it relied on phony figures. So Barry last week threw in the towel and said the board must make the cuts itself. He, of course, reserves the right to criticize anything the board does.

g.) The comet Kohoutek, which was supposed to destroy New York City in 1973, may hit D.C. at any moment, and the mayor has to be ready.

And the answer is: all except g.—although Barry could still blame the delay on the newly discovered comet Hyakutake, which will pass 10 million miles from D.C. next month.

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Barry’s duck-and-run on Feb. 2 stood in stark contrast to his showing a day earlier. Barry gave a bravura performance at his Feb. 1 news conference, brilliantly spinning the very mixed results of the city audit. On Groundhog Day last year, Barry pegged the city’s total debt at $722 million. The audit released last week by KPMG Peat Marwick LLP found that the city, as of Sept. 30, 1995, only owed $378.5 million more than it could pay. That debt is owed to vendors who provide goods and services to the city. As of Sept. 30, those vendors had been waiting an average of nearly five months for payment; many of them will no longer do business with the deadbeat city.

The mayor finished his first nine months in office with a deficit of about $55 million, much less than the $335-million debt former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly left behind during her last year at the helm. The deficit, however, has been rising again since October.

The audit also warned of serious cash management problems and, most alarmingly, of plummeting property values. The value of taxable real estate in the District has fallen from $45 billion to $42.2 billion since 1993. That dramatic decline, coupled with a fleeing population, resulted in a $100-million drop in property and income taxes collected last year. This year’s tax revenues are expected to fall $140 million short of projections.

Not surprisingly, the mayor focused on the good news. He bragged that he cut District spending by $151 million in FY 1995, the first time since 1981, he pointed out, that government spending declined. (Hizzoner, of course, was mayor during 10 of those years of growth.) Barry also took credit for cutting 3,885 jobs from the city payroll after the control board ordered a cut of 2,000. “We more than doubled it,” Barry boasted at the news conference.

Barry, of course, downplayed the fact that much of the reduction in the work force and the deficit resulted from senior employees taking early buyouts. This catch-as-catch-can method of trimming the government has robbed critical agencies like the Department of Finance and Revenue of their brain trusts.

The mayor also vaunted that D.C. General Hospital finished the fiscal year with a $5-million profit after running up an $85-million deficit during Kelly’s last year. But an analysis of the audit by the D.C. Institute of Certified Public Accountants pointed out that the Barry administration transferred $57 million to the hospital last year to bump it out of the red.

The mayor also used the Feb. 1 news conference for some political grandstanding. Barry seemed disappointed that Brimmer “wasn’t as enthusiastic as I am” about the findings of the audit. Hizzoner said he had cut enough from the budget and would inflict no more pain on the city this year. If the control board demanded cuts, then the control board would have to make the cuts itself. That refusal to govern prompted a threat from board Vice Chairman Stephen Harlan to slash Barry’s salary and staff, since Hizzoner no longer wants to perform the duties of mayor. Barry countered weakly by claiming that Harlan was “personalizing” the dispute between the mayor and the board.

Don’t be surprised if Barry soon plays the race card against Harlan, who is white.

Harlan, Brimmer, Williams, et al. not only are trying to rein in city spending and reorganize the government, they are also trying to change the behavior of city officials, from Barry on down to school board members. The typical elected D.C. official avoids tough decisions and always turns to the federal government to bail out the city. During his Groundhog Day appearance on WAMU (88.5 FM)’s D.C. Politics Hour, Harlan said Chairman Dave Clarke and the council had not cooperated enough with the board’s efforts to alter their behavior. Clarke, never one to let a slight slip by, immediately phoned in to complain. Clarke insisted that the council, indeed, had cooperated: When the control board asked for another $150 million in spending cuts for this year, the council found $74 million.

That amounted to less than half the needed cuts, a failing grade by any standard. But Clarke seemed to be arguing that he and his council colleagues deserved kudos because, “We did the best we could.”

Now you see what the control board is up against.

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

The D.C. Zoning Commission voted in early December to stop printing notices of public hearings in the D.C. Register because the official publication of the D.C. government has been publishing so infrequently. But most D.C. lawyers and residents who monitor zoning changes didn’t learn of that decision until the last week in January. That’s when the Dec. 22 edition of the supposedly weekly Register, which contained the Zoning Commission’s decision, finally appeared—exactly four weeks late.

Just what publication the commission will now use to advertise zoning hearings is anyone’s guess. Perhaps city residents will have to start scanning church bulletins each Sunday to find out what developers and property owners are planning.

Zoning lawyer Richard Nettler has questioned the legality of the commission’s decision. Nettler says the council requires that all notices of public hearings before city agencies be published in the Register at least 30 days in advance….

When CFO Williams and newly arrived D.C. Inspector General (IG) Angela Avant huddled during a meeting of the control board last month, they were overheard discussing serious matters. Williams was advising the mild-mannered Avant to get a city car and driver “comparable” to those used by other D.C. agency heads.

“This may not seem important, but believe me, you can spend a fortune on cabs,” the CFO tutored the IG.

Williams was reassuring the city’s new “junkyard dog” that she is entitled to this perk, and that it would be more frugal in the long run than hailing taxis. CP