As all the city knows, the city’s budget crisis has prompted deep cuts to the Department of Public Works (DPW), including the firing of the entire six-person Office of Solid Waste Control, a roving crew of ticket writers who cite residents and businesses for polluting the city’s alleys, streets, and front yards. What almost nobody knows is that the Barry administration rejected an internal DPW recommendation that the department instead fire a handful of its despised meter maids and men.
In practical terms, the decision means that by the end of April, the city will have no one enforcing the 60-odd possible infractions of the District’s sanitation code, which governs every imaginable environmental nuisance, from operating an open dump to harboring rats to putting hazardous household waste out for collection. In symbolic terms, the decision provides a graphic display of how completely greed—or desperation—hasovertaken quality-of-life considerations in resolving the city’s budget catastrophe.
At his March 2 confirmation hearing before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Public Works, Larry King, the mayor’s choice to head DPW, said that wiping out the inspection crew was part of the department’s strategy of focusing its shrinking resources on the front-line services that residents value most—like trash collection and disposal. “How we accomplish [the cuts] should be to eliminate certain services so that the remaining functions can be done fully,” King said. When asked by Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans about the possibility of keeping the sanitation officers on their beats, King lamented, “I just don’t have the money, and I just don’t have the bodies.”
What King did not mention was that he had already tried to save the office by floating a proposal to the mayor’s office to instead cut staff from parking enforcement, another division that falls under DPW’s sprawling roof of municipal functions. But the mayor’s budget wonks spiked the plan, citing the proven revenue-generating record of the blue meanies, according to DPW sources privy to the decision.
The mayor’s office had instructed DPW to lop 339 full-time employees from its payroll to meet its austerity budget level of $77 million for fiscal year 1995. “We’re caught up in this numbers game for public-works positions,” says inspector Tom Day. “[King] told us that it wasn’t a money issue because our citations make the office self-sustaining.”
The Office of Solid Waste Control might be self-sustaining; after all, it has collected $180,033 of the $1.2 million in citations its inspectors wrote last year. But it isn’t the cash cow that the Bureau of Parking Services is. Aided by the ability to boot and tow, the 100-plus parking police collect more than $60 million a year in fines.
It’s an all-too-familiar Catch-22. To alleviate its $722-million deficit, the city can either cut valuable services or bleed its citizens through taxes and fines. In either case, the District risks hastening the departure of business and residents for the cheap and clean suburbs.
In the case of this decision, the city has cut services to protect the parking fines that most aggravate residents. “We simply cannot stand for this,” says Marilyn Groves, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA). “Eliminating this office is indefensible, as anyone who understands the ramifications would understand.”
To combat businesses that trash the Dupont Circle area, DCCA rallied volunteers—the “Rat Patrol”—to document violations for DPW. “We’ve done everything we can for them, short of writing the tickets,” notes Groves. Now that the entire force has been canned, DPW spokesperson Linda Grant hopes that residents continue to help keep the city’s streets clean. “The police department has always played a role in stopping illegal dumping,” notes Grant. “And they need descriptions of vehicles to follow up—that’s where residents come in.”
Of course, if pressed, city residents could haul their own bath water from the Potomac. However, people pay taxes so that certain of life’s little chores—fighting fires, picking up trash, and arresting criminals—are performed by the government.
DCCA and other community groups vow to muster their forces at DPW’s March 22 budget hearings to register this sentiment. And Evans and other councilmembers have sworn to explore ways to save the sanitation inspection team and other DPW functions—such as mechanized street cleaning—slated for slashing. However, DPW officials aren’t expecting any last-minute reprieves. “The first phase is to come within the personnel and budget ceilings that have been set forth,” says Grant. “Finding alternatives is the next phase.”
Instead of finding sensible alternatives, D.C. officials are far more likely to inflict bizarre and contradictory governing on taxpayers. If you have any doubts, it’s worth noting that on March 6, Mayor Marion Barry signed a bill to increase the fines levied by the very same Office of Solid Waste Control inspectors that his underlings have consigned to the unemployment queue.