Mayor Muriel Bowser
Mayor Muriel Bowser. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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It will probably be cold outside when the newly sworn-in president of the United States rolls by the John A. Wilson Building during the 2021 Inaugural Parade. But at least Mayor Muriel Bowser, should she choose to attend the celebration, will be warm, as will the other Very Important People sitting in the “reviewing stands” that District taxpayers fund every four years.

The total estimated cost for three VIP booths on the parade route, including the mayoral booth in front of the Wilson Building, is $6.5 million. The presidential booth and the media booth will be located in President’s Park and Lafayette Park, respectively.

In late July, Herronor dipped into the District’s rainy day fund and withdrew $1 million to pay for the design, permitting, and “preconstruction work” for the booths, according to a letter from D.C.’s deputy chief financial officer, Gordon McDonald.

Bowser took money from the rainy day account with the intent to replace it with unused funds in the fiscal year 2020 budget. Her reprogramming request would take $1 million in unused money from the Department of Employment Services and give it to the Department of General Services. But that plan doesn’t sit well with at-large councilmembers Robert White and Elissa Silverman.

White and Silverman filed a disapproval resolution earlier this week seeking to block Bowser’s budget maneuvers. WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle was the first to report White and Silverman’s disapproval.

“At a time like this, during a pandemic and economic downturn, it doesn’t look good for D.C. officials to be elevated in a luxury box while everyday people are struggling,” White says.

He also questions the legality of Bowser’s use of the rainy day fund. The law says the fund may be used for “unanticipated and nonrecurring extraordinary needs of an emergency nature, including a natural disaster or calamity.” LL finds it difficult to describe an expense as “unanticipated and nonrecurring” when it relates to an event that happens every four years.

White says Bowser administration officials asked him during a meeting in July to introduce an emergency measure to reprogram the funds, which he declined to do. Instead, Ward 4 Councilmember and Bowser ally Brandon Todd requested to agendize the reprogramming resolution on July 23, but pulled the measure during the Council’s July 28 legislative meeting. Todd did not respond to LL’s email asking for an explanation. He was one of three councilmembers—along with Bowser, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, and former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans—who planned to attend President Trump‘s 2017 inauguration, the Washington Post reported. Other local legislators found something else to do that day.

Silverman echoes White’s sentiment that the optics of spending millions on a heated VIP viewing stand, regardless of who the next occupant of the White House will be, aren’t great.

And although the Office of the Chief Financial Officer has said the $1 million Bowser is seeking to take from the DOES budget won’t impact the agency’s operations, Silverman points out that nearly 145,000 D.C. residents have filed for unemployment insurance. Some still haven’t received a check, DCist reported.

“If we’re going to spend million on that, then invite the people who’ve suffered most because of this tyrannical president to take advantage of the viewing stand, or families who lost a loved one to COVID-19, or lost a job in the restaurant industry,” Silverman says.

Bowser says she hasn’t spoken to White or Silverman about their specific concerns, but notes that the D.C. government has built and provided the review stands for inaugurations dating back several election cycles “to support the peaceful transition of power every year regardless of who the president is.”

“We’re honored by that responsibility,” Bowser says, noting that the federal government typically reimburses the District for the cost of the booths.

In other words, D.C. taxpayers are effectively giving the federal government an interest-free loan so elected leaders and their guests can watch a parade comfortably. In past years, the mayoral luxury box included carpeting, heating, and flat-screen TVs, the Post reported.

And as of July 2019, D.C. was still waiting for reimbursement from the Trump administration for about $7.3 million in costs related to his 2017 inauguration and $1.7 million for his 2019 Independence Day celebration.

Council Chariman Phil Mendelson tells LL that he doesn’t have a problem footing the bill for the two booths by the White House but is “sympathetic” to White and Silverman’s argument about the optics. He says he intends to speak with Bowser and the rest of the Council about constructing the mayoral booth at the Wilson Building.

Additionally, D.C. is looking to award a sole source contract to build the VIP booths to the same firm that has completed the work since 1969.

A document giving justification for the no-bid award worth $5.5 million says Associated Builders Inc. is the only company with the expertise and track record to pull off the construction. White says he intends to stop the contract, but so far has not seen the specific details.

Bowser’s reprogramming was set to take effect by Sept. 14 if White and Silverman had not introduced their disapproval. The Council has until Sept. 28 to consider the matter. Its next legislative meeting is scheduled for Sept. 22.

Mendelson was in Mexico during the 2017 inauguration, and says he’s still reviewing his international travel plans for 2021 but is “very hopeful” he’ll be in town.

Asked about her plans to attend the inauguration parade, Bowser says she’s attended every year since she was elected, but adds that “I haven’t made my schedule for January.”

Correction: Councilmember Anita Bonds says she did not use the luxury booth during the inauguration parade, as LL previously reported. Rather she watched from her office in the Wilson Building.