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Watching Hizzoner’s performance of late, LL was beginning to worry that aliens had invaded the body of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., snatched away his brain, and left behind a hollow replica of the city’s most skillful manipulator. The man posing as mayor still looked and sounded like Barry, D.C.’s self-proclaimed “financial wizard,” but he acted more like the Wizard of Id.
Consider the mayor’s Nov. 8 showdown with the control board over city finances. Although LL was not surprised when the mayor ducked the control board hearing, we were stunned to hear the mayor’s explanation for why he didn’t show: fear that he would appear “incompetent or uncooperative.” Those were not words LL thought we’d ever hear Hizzoner say about himself. But there they were, in Barry’s Nov. 8 letter to control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer explaining his no-show.
“If I come and am not fully prepared, then I would look as though I am incompetent or uncooperative,” Barry wrote the snubbed Brimmer. “Neither is the case.”
Barry, according to his aides, writes these letters himself. Perhaps he should consider hiring a ghost writer.
His letter to D.C. Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Anthony Williams, dated Nov. 13, was an even bigger public relations disaster. That letter was a transparent attempt by Barry to convey the impression he was freely granting power over city spending to Williams. In fact, he was being forced to surrender his checkbook to the CFO. Williams told Barry on Nov. 13 that Congress had transferred spending authority to him. Barry’s letter, which was not distributed until Nov. 14, had obviously been backdated in hopes of convincing D.C. residents that Barry was giving Williams orders, not vice versa.
But even Barry realized at the last minute that his public wasn’t that gullible, so he shunned the Nov. 14 news conference he had called to portray himself as having the upper hand in the feud with Williams. Barry spokeswoman Raymone Bain stalwartly insisted to reporters that Barry was MIA because he was locked in “high-level negotiations with the White House and Congress” about reopening the federal and District governments. But that didn’t fly, either. Bain couldn’t name anyone in the White House or Congress Barry had talked to.
So LL was deeply concerned when we got word early on Nov. 15 that Barry had called another news conference that morning to discuss his health. Barry clearly seemed to be losing his grip, and LL wondered whether there was some truth to the circulating rumors that Hizzoner planned to resign in the wake of his declining power.
But Barry’s performance at the news conference reassured LL that the mayor had not fallen victim to the body snatchers. Barry arrived on time for this event (well, 10 minutes late, which is about 20 minutes early on Barry-time). Surrounded by his wife, mother, doctors, minister, and top administration officials, Barry calmly announced to a roomful of reporters and a live television audience that he had prostate cancer. This was the old Barry—cool, charismatic, good-humored, and very much in control. He had even invited his nemesis Williams to stand beside him, and pointed out the chief financial officer to the media.
Although Barry had known for more than a month that he had prostate cancer—one of the deadliest diseases for men but also one of the most treatable—Hizzoner said he picked that day to announce it so that he could beat the media to the punch. He noted that speculation was rampant about his frequent trips to George Washington University Hospital. And Barry said he wanted to get the word out to other men—especially black men, who suffer high rates of prostate cancer—that they need to get regular screening tests for the disease.
Whatever the reasons for its timing, the announcement clearly generated a needed wave of sympathy for the mayor—something that had been missing for some time. Articles and broadcasts heralded him as a survivor who had overcome drugs, alcohol, prison, political downfall, and three divorces, and would overcome this latest obstacle, too.
Barry projected that image by joking about his plight to his television audience. “I feel fantastic, really. In fact, I look good, too,” he said, laughing.
The old Barry was back, at least for a day.
STICKING THE DISTRICT’S DEADBEATS
That squealing sound Washingtonians may soon hear is not proof that Mayor Barry’s trip to Africa last March, supposedly to discuss the District’s agricultural prospects with that continent’s leaders, is paying off with massive swine imports. Quite the contrary. It will be the panicked sound of District businessmen, homeowners, and landlords who have been feeding at the trough for years while avoiding their local taxes.
The District government is putting the finishing touches on a plan to bundle all of its liens for uncollected taxes, fees, and water and sewer bills—estimated at an astonishing $130 million and rising—and sell them to a group of investors, probably from Wall Street. This fund-raising scheme is known as “the New Jersey plan,” since it was used successfully by cities in that state to collect old debts.
The city will sell its liens for less than what is owed, and the investors’ profits will depend on how much of the original debt they can collect. The buyers are expected to pay about $100 million for the liens, a quick infusion of cash for D.C.’s depleted coffers.
The New Jersey plan is founded on the idea that the private sector is much more skillful and ruthless than governments when it comes to collecting debts. Once investors buy the debt, they will set up an entity to go out and collect it. Their bounty hunters can be counted on to ignore the political connections that reportedly have helped some local residents avoid paying taxes and overdue bills for years. Uncollected real estate taxes will comprise the biggest part of this bundle, according to those working on the District’s plan.
LL will be watching to see if the collectors pursue politically connected deadbeats such as former D.C. shadow U.S. Representative/ statehood lobbyist Charles Moreland, who has boasted of his refusal to pay District and federal taxes for years in protest of the lack of D.C. statehood.
The Barry administration has been preparing the debt sale for months, but budget battles have delayed implementation. One D.C. attorney helping draft the plan speculates that the debt sale is being held up again, this time by the feud between Barry and CFO Williams over who gets to choose the city’s new financial adviser. This is a totally separate issue from the debt sale: The city hires a private firm to advise it on bonds and investments involving public funds. Williams and Barry are bickering over what firm to choose.
But the New Jersey plan appears to have the blessing of the control board. Board Executive Director John Hill has been telling D.C. residents for the past three months that the D.C. government intends to sell tax liens to raise badly needed revenue. And since Congress last week imposed an additional $140-million cut in city spending for the current fiscal year, the New Jersey plan is likely to gather lots of momentum soon.
Perhaps the National Press Club (NPC) will have to resort to a New Jersey-type scheme of its own to collect real estate taxes it has overpaid the city. During the club’s contentious and sparsely attended membership meeting Nov. 17, NPC officers said the club had shown a profit this year, in part because of a $71,000 tax refund due from the D.C. government. But NPC president Monroe “Bud” Karmin conceded that the refund exists only on paper: “We don’t have the money.” The District owes the club for overassessments dating back to 1992 on NPC’s headquarters at 529 14th St. NW. But club officials say they don’t know when to expect the tax refund from the financially strapped D.C. government.
The issue arose during last week’s meeting, when NPC officials tried a second time to persuade members to approve a $57,000 dues increase for next year. Approval was blocked during the October meeting because too few members attended to reach a quorum of 75. Last week’s meeting also fell far short of a quorum, but NPC officers kept the polls open for five hours after the meeting so they could round up the needed votes out of the club’s 4,400 members. The dues increase, part of the club’s $5-million annual budget, was finally approved. But NPC’s board then dropped the dues hike in the wake of threatened legal action.
“I’ve never seen a club of this size in such shreds,” commented NPC member Charles Alexander, who voted against the increase….
NPC should call Bell Atlantic-D.C. for advice on collecting money from the city. The city’s overdue phone bill had climbed to $7 million by the end of September (now that’s a big phone bill). Bell Atlantic officials calculated that the company would owe the city $14 million in gross receipts taxes during the first quarter of the new fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. So Bell Atlantic offered to pay $7 million to the city in advance, then apply the $7 million owed by the city to the remainder of the bill.
That would seem the most logical way of handling these transactions, but city officials balked. They wanted Bell Atlantic to write out a check for the full $14 million. Then the D.C. government would pay its $7 million bill when it got around to it—say, 1997. Company executives were too smart to fall for that one and only paid half the tax bill.
“In essence, we got to keep $7 million in our money and they got $7 million from us, which they sorely needed at the time,” says Bell Atlantic-D.C. controller/treasurer Sheila Shears. “I think it worked out well for both parties.” Shears says the $7 million credited to the city’s account did not fully pay off the overdue phone bill. “But it was close enough for us. I don’t know if we’ve received any payments from them since then. I really doubt it….”
National Park Service officials were unhappy to read comments by D.C. Police Chief Larry Soulsby poking fun at their agency in LL’s column three weeks ago (see “Loose Lips,” 11/3). We reported on Soulsby’s remarks at an Oct. 26 town meeting in Ward 5 in which the chief needled the park service for its highly disputed crowd estimate of the Oct. 16 Million Man March.
“I’m a little bit dismayed that he would take a cheap shot like that, since we provided such good political cover for him at the time,” a peeved park service official complained in a phone call to LL. “He was conspicuously silent at the time, wasn’t he? It wasn’t a very charitable thing for him to do, since we took all the heat for him.”
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