We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
When former Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson joined the D.C. Council in 1995, the city government was in shambles, with a projected $700 million deficit and a federal control board that eventually seized power over most of the District’s governing functions. But at least there was an upside: Because the District had so little money, it had less to waste.
“When you are near bankruptcy, it really forces you to make tough decisions,” Patterson says.
Patterson gave up the Ward 3 seat in 2006 to launch an unsuccessful run for Council chair. Since the start of 2015, though, she’s been back working for the Council, this time as the D.C. auditor. After a year of revelatory audits, Patterson is aiming her pen in 2016 at the District’s boom—and the waste that comes with it.
“It’s nice to have good times,” Patterson says. “But I think there’s less pressure to make sure each dollar is spent effectively.”
Maybe the most high-profile report from Patterson’s first year as auditor focused on the District’s more than decade-long school modernization program, which has funded new schools that Patterson calls “practically gilded” while burning through more than $1 billion. Patterson’s audit, released in July, confirmed what many Wilson Building observers suspected: No one was watching where the money was going. Instead, construction management had been offloaded to private firms that had less of an incentive to watch out for taxpayers.
“There are lots of parties involved and no one’s really in charge,” Patterson says.
Patterson plans to keep investigating the role of private firms in District contracting management this year.
Patterson’s audit found that while school modernization costs had ballooned, more than two dozen schools had never received any renovations. When the program launched, schools were supposed to cost a little over $200 per square foot. In reality, Burleith’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts could cost as much as $1,000 per square foot, and other schools are not much cheaper. Patterson plans to investigate the Duke Ellington cost overruns this year.
For Patterson, who was on the Council when school modernization launched, even less outrageous costs were a surprise. Patterson says she was shocked to see how architecturally impressive some of the District’s new schools have been.
“I never envisioned in 2006 that we’d be building palaces instead of schools,” she says.
Patterson’s 2015 included a series of other high-profile reports that read like a horror show of District government malfunction. Her office reported on the botched handling of contracting at the McMillan Sand Reservoir—maybe the District’s most contentious development issue—and she’s exposed further the ongoing trainwreck that is the D.C. Board of Elections.
Her audits have inspired bruising Council hearings for their subjects.
“One of the things that that does is it generates more work,” Patterson says.
DCBOE can’t get their act together, but LL will say this for them: A broken voting machine can’t physically harm anybody. The same can’t be said for the ongoing problems at the D.C. Fire and EMS Department.
In June, Patterson’s office released a report on DCFEMS’ commitment to the recommendations of the Rosenbaum Report—named after reporter David Rosenbaum, who died in 2006 after receiving dismal emergency aid. After investigating the department, Patterson found that fewer than half of the recommendations had been implemented.
For this year, Patterson has a long list of planned reviews, including a report on the Metropolitan Police Department’s use-of-force policies and more on school modernization. She’s also looking into the District’s contracts for handling homeless services, which, given their ongoing woes, could mean some explosive Council hearings.
The D.C. Public Schools’ food contract, already the subject of a successful whistleblower lawsuit, is also in her sights. That’s in keeping with her focus on whether privatizing more and more traditional government functions has paid off.
If there’s a theme to the Patterson era so far, it’s this: The District is spending too much, and not always on the right things.
All those big projects can lead to some perverse line items in the budget.
“We spend more on debt service than we do on the police department,” Patterson says.
Patterson is more optimistic than LL about the chances for reining in District government spending—or at least for imposing more discipline on it. She doesn’t think fiscal discipline will come from belt-tightening, though.
Instead, Patterson thinks it’ll come from pols deciding they need to spend the money being blown elsewhere on something else. Looming priorities like affordable housing, for example, could force Mayor Muriel Bowser to look closer at the school modernization budget.
Patterson says some things have improved in the District government in the past 20 years—she can pay her parking tickets online, for one thing. But she wouldn’t mind a return to control board-era financial planning.
“I’m hoping that the policy makers are going to bring that same kind of discipline,” Patterson says.