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The D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority—commonly known as the control board—matched wits last Saturday with D.C. elected officials. Unfortunately, the recommendations from the five-member panel, appointed by the president this spring, seemed like they came right out of the District Council’s handbook on issue avoidance. The control board refused to close the D.C. School of Law, accepted privatizing instead of outright downsizing, and failed to specifically identify the 715 additional positions that should be cut from the city’s top-heavy bureaucracy.
“The control board and the city are still dancing around issues; they’re still feeling each other out. I think they’ve come to the realization that fiscal ’96 is still going to be a deficit year. I think they are more sensitive to the loss of real jobs that is going to take place,” says business leader Arthur J. Schultz.
Political activist and Howard University professor Howard Croft says the control board is currently bumping into the same hard realities that have trapped District leaders for years.
“The control board has been forced to deal with the fact that it can’t look at the process in purely technocratic terms,” says Croft. “They have come to terms with the politics of it all.”
When the board met last Saturday, they displayed a growing understanding of the politics attached to budget decisions. The board won a few skirmishes, but didn’t make much progress in their war on the city’s deficit. Their dealings with the mayor offered a case study in political finesse. Mayor Marion Barry had responded to the board’s demand to cut 5,600 positions—2,000 filled and 3,600 vacant—from the city’s 45,378-person labor force by arguing that those workers who weren’t under his jurisdiction should be removed from the total. Consequently, he used Department of Public and Assisted Housing (913), Public Defender Service (139), Aqueduct (294), and D.C. General Hospital (1,595) workers to achieve reductions sought by the board. The board tweaked Barry’s approach: Instead of counting the jobs toward the cuts it requested, the board reduced the total labor force by that number and asked for the same percentage of cuts as it had in the first place. The city now must cut 5,237 positions, which will take some doing. The board’s actions snared Barry in his own trap: While he technically saved some jobs, he also reduced the pool from which he can identify and draw other positions for elimination, making it even more difficult to cut the city’s payroll.
The D.C. Council did not escape the control board’s sophisticated sting. In order to meet board objectives, council members identified thousands of city jobs to be privatized, including the food and security services for the D.C. Public Schools. But while the board accepted the privatization, it only counted the actual savings achieved, which would be about 5 percent. The formula meant that of the 892 school system jobs to be privatized, only 45 were counted as cuts. Council Chairman David Clarke isn’t sure how his colleagues will respond to the board’s action, since they only favored privatization as a way of meeting the board’s demands. If the jobs aren’t counted toward targeted reductions, support for privatization may evaporate.
The University of the District of Columbia (UDC) suffered a bit of a blow as well. Some UDC faculty are outraged over the board’s decision to cut an additional 48 positions from the school’s staff. The cuts came in another hunter-captured-by-the-game ploy by the control board: Tilden J. LeMelle, UDC’s president, and D.C. School of Law Dean William Robinson agreed months ago to merge their two institutions, linking their destinies in hopes of shielding both institutions from budget cuts. Many thought the board would train its ax on the law school, ignoring the pleadings of Clarke (who once worked at the law school). But the board, in a slick bit of accounting, let the law school remain open but snatched the 48 jobs it represents. The move pits LeMelle and Robinson and their respective schools against each other. It’s unclear how the two will deal with the board’s recommendation, but already UDC faculty are lobbying to get the law school off its back: “Why is it a broken toy like the law school is still being saved?” asked one high-level UDC administrator.
“The way the politicians have played this whole issue has forced them [LeMelle and Robinson] to change sides,” Croft says with disgust.
Although the board was armed for bear Saturday, it refused to attack. Instead of specifying the remaining 715 positions needed to reach the 5,600 target, the board wimped out, leaving the shooting to the city’s elected officials. Despite the demonstrated inability of the mayor and council to meet the board’s earlier recommendations, board Chairman Andrew Brimmer said he and his colleagues were confident that those responsible for the day-to-day operations could make the tough decisions. He expressed confidence the mayor and council will identify the cuts before Congress takes up the city’s budget in mid-September.
The board’s reluctance to dictate can be attributed in part to the desires of D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Earlier this month, when both the mayor and council failed to meet the board’s earlier recommendations, Norton sent a letter to Brimmer urging him to look for common ground rather than steamroll over the city’s elected representatives.
But while Norton may have kept the board at bay, the Republican-dominated Congress will be a tougher bunch to control. The Republicans had hoped the predominantly African-American board would shield them from charges of racism and intrusion, but the control board appears to be subject to the same political forces that have historically prevented District leaders from doing what it takes to get the city out of the red. If Barry and the council fail to cut the 715 additional positions, and the board doesn’t back up its threat to move unilaterally, the buck will stop in a big hurry with Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.), chairman of the D.C. appropriations subcommitte. It’s doubtful Walsh will be slowed by District politics when push comes to shove.