Remember, a few years back, when every politician in town was going nuts over Mayor Anthony A. Williams‘ plan to build a city-financed ballpark? Williams figured out a way to whip the votes to get the stadium deal through: create a “Community Benefit Fund” that would collect certain ballpark-related revenues that would be dished out for various neighborhood needs. Of course, for councilmembers to be allocated a piece of that money meant they had to play ball (har har) with Tony.
Several councilmembers did. Kevin Chavous, then Ward 7 councilmember, got $5 million for projects in his ward. Sharon Ambrose, then Ward 6 councilmember, got the same amount for her bailiwick. Sandy Allen, then Ward 8 councilmember, was promised tens of millions for development projects in her ward. Vincent B. Orange Sr., then Ward 5 councilmember, got $12 million for pet projects of his own, including laptops for kids at McKinley Tech High School. Tens of millions more was set aside for city schools and libraries.
According to estimates published in press accounts at the time, the fund was estimated to eventually bring in as much as $450 million. This year is the first time that the District’s chief financial officer is certifying that there’s any money actually in the fund—-but only about $2.23 million. And, under Mayor Adrian M. Fenty‘s spending plan, not a dollar of that will go toward any of the projects Williams negotiated.
Instead, the money is being used for earmarks, including a half mil each for the Greater Washington Sports Alliance and the Lincoln Theater, plus $398,000 to “explore the feasibility of a D.C. Children’s Museum.” (The Williams allocations aren’t stripped out, but Fenty’s items are simply placed above them in the ballpark authorization law.) LL goes into much greater detail about the earmark game in his column to be published tomorrow.
Fenty’s budget czar, William Singer, says the move was a result of the low revenues seen coming into the fund, which come out of a tax-increment-financing district around the ballpark and other development-related sources. “We’re kind of recognizing that a modest amount of money is coming in,” Singer says. “Rather than wait 20 years to cross off one item…we’re saying, let’s just spend it on the community now.”
Also worthy of note: The community benefit money that wasn’t allocated through Williams’ horse-trading is supposed to be divvied according to a process that includes extended comment periods and “input from Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, community groups, the faith community, representatives of the labor community, representatives of the business community, and other community stakeholders.”
But under Fenty’s proposed budget, all those procedures are replaced with the following sentence: “The Mayor, through the annual budget process, may make a request for an appropriation for expenditures from the Community Benefit Fund.”
Fenty, of course, voted against the ballpark deal and owes no fealty to any of the four aforementioned ex-councilmembers. And the Williams horse-trading always had a hint of charade to it—-meant, as it was, merely to provide short-term political cover for a deal unpopular in most parts of the city. Or, as Singer puts it, “Those were and always have been totally empty promises.”
Williams is traveling and was not available for comment. LL’s calls to Orange were returned by a spokesperson for his employer, Pepco, saying there would be no comment. Allen and Chavous did not immediately return calls for comment.
Singer says a time may come when the money might be used as Williams & Co. intended. “If a whole bunch of money started coming in to the fund, of course we’d come back to the list.”