When Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. returned to action last week after a monthlong recuperation from prostate cancer surgery, he still seemed to be suffering delusional effects from the anesthetic used in the Dec. 2 operation. Barry called a Jan. 5 news conference, his first in more than five weeks, to pronounce his first 12 months back at the top of D.C. politics “a very good year.” As for public safety in the District, Hizzoner declared 1995 “a banner year.”
His performance left reporters asking each other in disbelief, “Did you know it was a good year? How did I miss that?”
Almost anyone else would deem 1995 an annus horribilis for Barry. After a stunning 1994 electoral triumph, Barry saw his power eroded by a new financial control board, a chief financial officer who envisions himself as co-equal to the mayor, and a Republican Congress immune to the rope-a-dope tricks that worked so well when Democrats ruled Capitol Hill. The mayor was forced to cut the city budget and payroll (chopping government jobs, for Barry, is like sawing off a limb). And control board oversight prevents him from rewarding friends and allies with lucrative city contracts.
But that’s the conventional wisdom on Barry’s first year back, and if LL has learned anything by now, it’s that Barry is anything but conventional.
From Barry’s perspective, 1995 was a good year because he managed to blame much of the budget mess on his predecessor, former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. In February, Barry won points for “honesty” and “openness” by disclosing the $722-million deficit left him by Kelly. (Kelly, of course, used the same tactic in 1991, when she succeeded Barry.) Hizzoner also claims to have wrestled spending under controlalthough don’t try telling that to the D.C. Council, the control board, and Congress. The mayor, who seems to have learned math from President Bill Clinton’s budget negotiators, projects that D.C. will run a $10-million surplus in 1998, whensurprise, surprisehe is up for re-election, and a $119-million surplus the year after that.
It was also a good year, according to Barry, because the murder rate in the nation’s former murder capital dropped dramatically. Never mind that the murder rate declined sharply last year in nearly every major American city; never mind that veteran D.C. cops are quitting the force faster than Democrats are leaving Congress; never mind that public confidence in the police department is plummeting.
Barry also boasts that he is taking the city in a new direction, although what direction that is, besides down, remains unclear.
What makes his first-year feats especially amazing, Barry contends, is that he accomplished them all without a sympathetic legislaturemeaning a council he could dominate as he did in the ’80sand without a sympathetic newspaper.
“You would think we had just gotten statehood, and 75 businesses were moving in,” said WAMU (88.5 FM) political analyst Mark Plotkin after witnessing Barry’s perplexing performance.
D.C. government junkies in need of a reality check after Barry’s press conference should tune in to cable Channel 13. The D.C. Council’s channel is airing nearly constant reruns of the Jan. 5 hearing in which Barry’s revised 1996 budget was shredded.
That plan, introduced on Jan. 3, was intended to meet new constraints imposed by Congress for a fiscal year now one-fourth gone. The budget looks as if it was stitched together by Dr. Frankenstein. It proposes to trim another $150 million, mostly by relying on the usual pathetic gimmicks. Barry’s new budget-balancing strategy, in a nutshell: Sell off the city, piece by piece, to raise cash.
According to the plan, D.C. could reap $18.6 million from the sale of traffic signals and streetlights and another $30 million from the sale of the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), a new Southeast jail annex built with $50 million in federal funds.
These proposals have about as much chance of congressional approval as a scheme to sell the White House to Rupert Murdoch in order to balance the federal budget.
Federal highway officials have already informed the District that it can’t sell the traffic signal system, which was purchased with federal money. That leaves only the streetlights for disposal. Department of Public Works Director Larry King claims that the streetlights, which the city purchased from Pepco during the 1980s for $14 million, could now fetch more than $18 million. Without producing much evidence of private-sector interest, the Barry administration believes that telecommunication firms would pay millions for the poles in order to use them as nests for cellular and other wireless transmitters. King says the city spends $12 million annually on streetlight maintenance, an expense that might be eliminated by auctioning the poles to telecommunications companies, which would maintain them.
The plan to sell the correctional treatment facility also faces a stiff obstacle. City budget director Rodney Palmer admitted to the council last week that it may be difficult to sell CTF because the federal government may co-own the facility.
This confusion about what the city can or can’t sell and how much such sales would raise is deliberate, says new Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Anthony Williams. The CFO seems to believeas does everyone else in Washingtonthat the Barry administration fudged the numbers in this latest budget in order to avoid real program cuts. So Williams this week relieved Palmer of his duties and recommended that he be fired. Barry objected in vain to Williams’ power play. The CFO dumped Palmer for using budget figures that Williams had warned were inaccurate. According to Palmer, Barry had insisted that he include the questionable figures.
The council’s new budget director, Harry Black, was the first official to weigh in with detailed criticisms of the mayor’s latest plan. Black had a brief moment in the spotlight in November: He was fired by Barry and City Administrator Michael Rogers after expressing a desire to join Williams’ staff. Black was serving on Rogers’ staff at the time, and Barry was feuding with Williams over who had final say on city spending. Even though he lost his job, Black eventually turned down Williams’ offer.
But, apparently in need of a paycheck, Black contacted council Chairman Dave Clarke around Christmas. Clarke, eager to recruit a mayoral critic and administration insider, quickly hired Black as the council’s budget director. But that hiring may backfire on Clarke. When Black last week accused the Barry administration of double-counting revenues in the latest budget plan, the criticisms sounded like payback.
“We don’t even know who he is,” Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans said of Black. Councilmembers and staff feel that Black overstepped his bounds by claiming to speak for the council.
Blackthrowing a few rocks at a house he helped buildfaulted the mayor for double-counting $50 million the administration expects to reap this year from uncollected taxes. The Barry administration plans to bundle the District’s uncollected taxes, establish a trust, and sell bonds backed by the taxes to Wall Street investors. Black questioned the administration’s claim that this would reduce the deficit by $50 million, given that former Mayor Kelly already counted some of these uncollected taxes in last year’s budget.
Williams told the council last week that it’s uncertain how much of those taxes D.C. could collect. Rogers has said that the District has written off $335 million in uncollected taxes since 1989.
Williams testified that he believes uncollected property taxes alone might top $14 million. District officials and Wall Street investors are salivating about these real estate taxes because many of the deadbeat properties are located in higher-priced neighborhoods. LL can’t wait to get our hands on the list of deadbeat owners: It reportedly reads like a Who’s Who of D.C., ranging from wealthy homeowners to successful businesspeople. According to a source familiar with the list, it also includes the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank famed for its opposition to high taxes. The city has filed a lien against the Heritage Foundation for overdue property taxes; the foundation claims it should be exempt as a nonprofit.
Collecting from any of the well-known deadbeats would probably be enough for Barry to proclaim 1996 another great year.
Mayor Barry has changed at least some of his old ways. In 1987, D.C. was walloped by a huge snowstorm while Barry was in Los Angeles. Barry caught hell for staying in sunny Southern California and not returning to his icy city until the snow emergency had passed. But last Sunday, during the height of the “Blizzard of ’96,” Barry was on the job at the Reeves Municipal Building. Bundled in appropriate winter clothing, he did live television interviews and advised District residents on how to weather the storm.
Barry told TV watchers that the homeless could find shelter at the Reeves Building on 14th Street NW, at the John A. Wilson/District Building, or at “my building,” 1 Judiciary Square. Barry seems to have forgotten that during the 1994 mayoral campaign, he dubbed 1 Judiciary Square “The Taj Mahal” of Mayor Kelly….
City residents also have learned much since that exasperating 1987 snowstorm. Such as not to wait for city snowplows. If they show up at all, the city’s plows often succeed only in burying cars that owners have spent hours digging out. So private snowplowers were much in demand on city streets last Monday. Residents were flagging down passing snowplows and paying from $125 to $200 to clean their streets. The private entrepreneurs usually did the job right, sometimes spending an hour or more plowing a single block. That’s about 10 times longer than the city’s snowplowers would devote to the task. CP