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Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.) got Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.‘s attention last week by threatening to jail Hizzoner for purposely overspending the city’s budget. Within 24 hours of the warning, Barry had rushed to Capitol Hill to plead his case before Walsh, who didn’t budge from his hard-line position. But when the mayor left the July 13 meeting with the congressman, he was smiling, as usual. Barry told reporters circling outside Walsh’s office that he already had cut $200 million from the budget put forth by his predecessor, the vanquished Sharon Pratt Kelly.
“Now that’s an incredible amount,” he proclaimed, straining not to break his arm while patting himself on the back.
It was, indeed, incredible, because the figures handed out by the mayor’s staff showed a reduction of only $121 million from the Kelly spending plan. Somehow, between the writing and the telling, Barry managed to nearly double the amount of money he claims to have trimmed from the former mayor’s budget, an accounting feat worthy of jailed S&L magnate Charles Keating.
Since he is doing such a good job of deficit-cutting, and since the city’s revenues are running higher than expected, Barry argued that he is entitled to spend $3.371 billion this year, instead of the $3.254 billion approved by Congress. He asserted that the city needs the extra $117 million in order to fund the growth in Medicaid and welfare, and he refused to inflict more pain on his constituents by cutting deeper into these entitlements.
“I had a choice,” he insisted. “Either we close down the Medicaid program, or I come up here and ask that we be allowed to spend our own money.”
And, besides, Barry said, he can’t imagine Congress putting him in jail: It has not prosecuted anyone for overspending since the federal “anti-deficiency” law was enacted 90 years ago.
Barry, in essence, is playing chicken with Walsh, the city’s new budget sheriff. By maintaining that it would be unfair to single him out under the anti-deficiency law, Barry is grandstanding for a constituency that believes he was nailed unfairly by the feds once before—in his 1990 drug arrest and conviction. The mayor is betting that Walsh won’t dare infuriate Washingtonians by indicting him again.
But unlike the lily-livered Democrats who used to lord over the city’s budget, Sheriff Walsh shows no sign of backing down to Barry. Nor is he retreating from his attempt to subpoena former Mayor Kelly from her hideout at Harvard University. Walsh wants Kelly to appear before the D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee he chairs and explain her woeful mishandling of city finances between 1991 and 1995.
Walsh seemed much more resolute after last week’s meeting with Barry, which failed to end the standoff.
“The cap stands,” Walsh declared afterward, predicting that Barry would find another $117 million to cut from the budget, while sparing Medicaid. “He found money to hire 16,000 youths this summer. That’s not Medicaid,” Walsh said, pointing to the mayor’s summer jobs program.
Walsh takes the position that the city’s own revenues cannot be divided from the federal dollars flowing into the budget. He is trying to protect U.S. taxpayers’ money, and if that means restricting local spending, so be it.
The city’s new financial control board, which was wrapping up its first public meeting even as Barry and Walsh were staring each other down, is also struggling with how to separate federal and local funds.
Control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer stated before the July 13 meeting that he was surprised by the lack of detail in the D.C. budget—a sure sign that Brimmer has never looked at the District financial statement until this year. Other board members questioned why the city writes its budgets in such a murky and imprecise manner, placing enormous amounts of spending off-budget. No one present at the board’s meeting in the U.S. Department of Agriculture auditorium could answer.
Barry and other defenders of the status quo claim that D.C. receives only 18 percent of its budget from the federal government. (WAMU [88.5 FM] political analyst Mark Plotkin is still gloating after correcting House Speaker Newt Gingrich [R-Ga.] on that very point during Gingrich’s July 7 appearance on the Derek McGinty Show.)
Walsh, on the other hand, would retort that the 18 percent figure only counts the $660-million federal payment from Congress and excludes the $1 billion-plus in federal grants and allocations that flow annually into city coffers. City officials don’t include those federal dollars in the budget because the money is earmarked for specific programs and is meant to simply pass through local hands on its way to service providers. (Much of that “off-budget” money may be more “on-budget” than the city admits: Witnesses told the control board last week that federal money for AIDS and other programs was being held up by the D.C. government and spent elsewhere.)
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Thus, out of an overall budget that currently totals around $4.7 billion—not the $3.2-3.5 billion figure that’s regularly cited—the city obtains almost 40 percent of its spending power from the federal government.
The control board’s hearing seemed less a public meeting than a flogging of the District government. In an effort to repair the public damage done after Brimmer stated that he hoped to conduct board business in secret, board members last week listened to everyone who wanted to speak—for three minutes, anyway. Residents offered a few crumbs of praise for D.C. public schools and government employees who actually work, but otherwise described a government that is failing its citizens at every turn—from trash collecting to bill paying to caring for the young, the old, and the ill.
When they weren’t griping, witnesses were treating the board as a kind of alternative D.C. Council, a new source of constituent services. Board members were asked to: help collect disability payments due a public-school worker; make sure a paving contractor got paid for completed work; prevent more cuts in the budgets of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs); distribute political power to the city’s fast-growing Latino population; impose a tax on nonprofits; kill the proposed Barney Circle Freeway; restore the property tax hike for commercial landlords; change the city’s Byzantine personnel laws so that lousy workers can be fired; combine next year’s local and presidential primaries to save money; and so on, ad nauseam.
But board members were having none of it. When an employee of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs told the board that his agency is misspending funds, Brimmer rejoined that, “We cannot become the managers of your department.”
The chairman repeatedly stressed that “my colleagues and I are ready to support elected officials as they confront these challenges.”
That is, if the board can find any local officials who will confront anything. The reason the control board exists is that elected officials have abdicated their governing responsibilities for most of the last 20 years.
Councilmembers have been grousing for months that the board would micromanage the city and usurp local power. But when the board offered its first recommendation—that the council cut 2,000 employees from the work force—councilmembers whined that the board should be more specific. Some councilmembers complained that the board shouldn’t leave that politically painful decision up to them, but should tell the council exactly where and whom to cut.
So much for exercising home rule.
City employees called ANC commissioners last Friday and told them that the mayor was inviting them to an afternoon gathering to review the control board’s actions at its Thursday meeting. But when the commissioners arrived for the 5 p.m. meeting at the Reeves Municipal Center, Hizzoner was nowhere in sight. Instead, they encountered board foe Lawrence Guyot preaching resistance and rebellion.
“I was so angry, I left,” said ANC 6B Commissioner Gigi Ransom. “I don’t like being deceived like that.”
The phoned invitations had come from employees of the Mayor’s Office of the Ombudsman. “It was never said the mayor was going to be there,” says Keith Morgan, one of those making the calls. “I was just calling to tell people about a meeting. That’s part of my job.”
Guyot, a city employee, attended the control board’s July 13 meeting and told its members that he plans to mount a legal challenge contending that the creation of the board is unconstitutional. “There is no middle ground,” Guyot told the 250 or so who attended the board’s meeting. “You either collaborate, or you resist. I urge you to resist.”…
If anyone asks, “Would the real president of the D.C. Federation of Citizens Associations please stand up?,” don’t be surprised to see two people jumping to their feet. At the moment, two members—Gail Barnes of Sixteenth Street Heights and Peggy Snyder of Georgetown—are claiming to be the legitimate head of the bitterly divided 85-year-old organization.
Snyder was elected president at the federation’s raucous June 29 meeting at which outgoing President Stephen Koczak fainted and subsequently was hospitalized (see “Loose Lips,” 7/14). Declaring the election of Snyder and her slate of officers null and void because Koczak had adjourned the meeting before heading to the hospital, Koczak’s supporters met July 13 to elect Barnes president for the coming year. The federation’s other top offices also were filled with rivals to the Snyder slate. Koczak was elected treasurer.
LL can’t wait for the next federation meeting, when the dueling presidents will meet face to face….
Ward 4 resident John Chagnon was surprised when he received a letter from the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance in March stating that his Committee to Recall Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis had failed to file its Jan. 31 financial disclosure report. Chagnon said that the way he read the law, the report was not due until July 31. But, bowing to the interpretation of office Director Melvin Doxie, Chagnon filed his report April 18 showing that he had collected only $400—$300 of which came out of his pocket—in his failed attempt to recall Jarvis.
Chagnon’s surprise turned to anger when Doxie’s agency summoned him for a June 27 hearing to determine whether he should be fined for failing to file the financial report on time. He accused the office of being much more aggressive in pursuing his late filing than it had been in investigating his complaints against Jarvis for using her council staff and city funds to respond to his recall.
In a June 6 letter responding to Chagnon’s complaints, Doxie conceded that Jarvis had committed “a technical violation” in her mailing to Ward 4 voters. But Doxie said the councilmember had complied with the “intent and spirit” of the law, in part by subsequently reimbursing the city $90.40 for postage for the technically illegal mailing. Therefore, Doxie concluded, Chagnon’s allegations were “without merit.”
Doxie, awaiting council confirmation to a full four-year term, has vowed to bring a new, aggressive image to the heretofore toothless watchdog agency. But badgering Chagnon about a minor technical violation like late filing—while letting Jarvis off the hook for more serious transgressions—looks like the same ol’ stuff to LL.