Last spring, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the D.C. Council took heat from LL and others for their earmarks in the yearly budget. In his initial FY09 budget proposal, Fenty included $27 million in noncompetitive grants, which the council later upped to $70 million. Things got to the point that Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray pushed through new restrictions on the earmarking practice.
Needless to say, in these times of fiscal rectitude, earmarks are very, very hard to come by, and this year’s draft budget legislation no longer includes the exhaustive list provided in the past. But the earmarks are still there; they’re just smaller and harder to find. One honeypot that LL has been able to identify is the Neighborhood Investment Fund—-a pot of money set up as a sop to the Washington Interfaith Network and other activists during ballpark negotiations in 2004. The NIF, which is funded with up to $10 million yearly from personal property tax revenue, was intended to fund revitalization projects in a dozen underserved neighborhoods through a rigorous planning process.
The mayor is proposing taking $11.6 million from the NIF and spreading it to various places around the government. Much of it, under the proposal, is to stay under the control of the deputy mayor for planning and economic development—-for instance, a $2.1 million subsidy to “fully fund the operating expenses of parking operations” at the DC USA development in Columbia Heights. And another $2.4 million is being set aside, vaguely, to “[r]estore adequate funding for current economic development operations.”
The fact that the DC USA parking garage, built with $42 million in District funds, needs a $2 million yearly operating subsidy is little surprise, considering that the garage has been rarely more than half full since the project opened last year. In a message to constituents last May, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham reported that on average, only 250 of the garage’s 1,000 spaces were being used. (Greater Greater Washington has been following the DC USA parking folly closely.)
Sean Madigan, a spokesperson for the deputy mayor’s office, says the $2.4 million is “pretty mundane stuff, actually”—-money intended to fix accounting issues from last year’s budget. As for DC USA, he says, “The center’s doing great and it’s really meeting and exceeding expectations” in general. As for the parking, he says, the city expects greater use of the garage in the future: “We’re working on a couple of steps so that we get the biggest bang for our buck there.”
Now, neither of the aforementioned line items seems to be in keeping with the original intentions of the NIF, but other mayoral directives are easier to defend—-such as $3 million for “human capital development services” in struggling areas. And there’s capital-improvement funds totaling $850,000 to be sent to Rachael’s Women’s Center and the D.C. Center. Some $900,000 is intended to fund playground renovations in Shepherd Park. Bread for the City and D.C. Central Kitchen, both well-established nonprofits, are getting $250,000 each. More than $1.5 million is going to fund various arts organizations through the Commission on the Arts and Humanities—-CityDance, the D.C. Jewish Community Center, the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, the Kennedy Center, the Washington National Opera, and the Washington Performing Arts Society all get $250,000 under the proposal, with Dakshina Dance Company getting $75,000.
Budget maven Ed Lazere of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, informed of the mayor’s moves, expresses some concern: “It seems like they’re using the [NIF] in part just to plug holes in the mayor’s budget….In some ways, it’s not a huge problem [that they’re not following the NIF process]…but it seems like some of these things aren’t in keeping with the spirit of the law, which is to fund neighborhood projects.”