Trayon White Wilson Building rally
Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White speaks at a Wilson Building rally for new investments in his ward. Credit: Alex Koma

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Everyone in the Wilson Building can agree that D.C. owes a debt to historically disinvested communities east of the Anacostia River. Such consensus dissolves, however, on the question of how the city’s budget meets that obligation.

Some lawmakers, like Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker, see a need for a massive new investment in anti-poverty programs, like emergency rental assistance, a child tax credit, and additional food stamp benefits. It’s why he pitched a $391 million plan to fund these priorities in the new budget, keeping a tax hike on large commercial property transactions in place to generate the revenue and start closing these gaps.

Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White says he agrees with those aims, but wants to go further: He sees a need for big new investments in school athletic fields and community centers in his ward, reasoning that these are the sorts of resources that can keep kids safe and build community. And if that requires pulling money away from trail projects in the area, it’s a trade-off White can live with. During Tuesday’s initial budget debate, White proposed tens of millions of dollars in reallocations to that effect.

The majority of the Council seems willing to take some middle path between these two approaches, if Tuesday’s first vote approving the 2024 budget is any indication. Parker ultimately had to withdraw his proposal in the face of opposition from most of his colleagues, while Chairman Phil Mendelson delayed consideration of White’s amendments to the Council’s second and final vote on the budget on May 30. Still, Parker and White might be able to get at least some of what they want, even if it’s not the sweeping investment in east of the river residents they originally envisioned.

“I’m hoping, as a body, we can show up for Ward 8,” Parker, still just a few months into his Council tenure, urged his colleagues Tuesday. “There are real concerns in both wards 7 and 8, and I’m hopeful we can address those [by May 30].”

Parker reasoned that his tax plan, which would’ve kept in place an increase to the city’s deed and recordation tax passed four years ago, was the simplest way to do so. Although he had a long list of priorities he hoped to fund, he noted that each one would be particularly impactful east of the Anacostia. The Council Office of Racial Equity projects that funding legislation to increase benefits for SNAP recipients and address senior hunger would make the biggest difference to Black residents in wards 5, 7, and 8, and those were key planks of Parker’s plan.

But concerns about how the elevated tax rate could impact big property transactions downtown ultimately dissuaded even some more progressive councilmembers from supporting the proposal. White and Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau both spoke up in favor of it Tuesday, but otherwise lawmakers rushed to pour cold water on the idea. Even At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson, who backed the legislation for more food stamp money, but so far has been unable to find funding for it, admitted she was in an “awkward position” as she felt compelled to speak against the proposal.

“While it may seem like a big pot of money, relying on it to fund these programs opens the door to big problems in years to come,” Henderson said, echoing a concern from Mendelson and the real estate lobby about how the extra tax could stymie future land deals and end up driving revenues down in the long term.

Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Still, there does seem to be some momentum behind finding some money for SNAP before the budget gets finalized. Parker said Tuesday that Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George was working on finding some sort of funding source for the program, but a spokesperson for her declined to elaborate on that work just yet. Loose Lips hears that Lewis George is hunting for some unused funds to move over to SNAP, but the amount probably won’t be enough to afford the roughly $200 million it will cost to fully implement Henderson’s legislation over the next few years.

The future of White’s proposals is a bit less clear.

He took some of his colleagues by surprise by circulating close to $111 million in budget changes late Monday night. White’s proposal includes $16 million for a face-lift for Good Hope Road SE before it’s officially renamed for Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry and $26 million for a new bus route serving students at Malcolm X Elementary School at Green in Congress Heights. White also pitched the construction of a new sports complex at Fort Greble Recreation Center and a new rec center at Bard High School, at the cost of $30 million each, as well as the renovation of the Marvin Gaye Recreation Center, the Johnson Middle School field, and the Eastern High School stadium.

To pay for all that, White suggested pulling money away from the District Department of Transportation’s fund for new trail construction, a move that he primarily expects would impact a planned trail along Suitland Parkway.

“We don’t need a sidewalk in the woods in Ward 8 when we have crime through the roof,” White said at a press conference on the Wilson Building steps ahead of the budget vote. “A streetscape project is not a priority for us in Ward 8 right now.”

This rhetoric from White isn’t exactly a surprise, considering he’s emerged as one of the staunchest opponents of cycling advocates on the Council in recent years. “Our kids walking to school don’t give a damn about them bike lanes,” he added, arguing that DDOT was more focused on such projects than his requests for new bus service. White’s proposals managed to ruffle the feathers of his more cycling-friendly colleagues when they discovered that the changes would affect more than just Ward 8 projects.

Analysis from the Council’s budget office forwarded to LL suggests that White’s budget changes would not only reduce funding for several projects in the ward, but also seriously hamper nine other projects around the city. White disputes that interpretation, but the budget analysts have the final say here. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, the transportation committee chair, also tells LL that he is not supportive of changes that would endanger projects that have long been in the works for Ward 8.

Immediately before Tuesday’s meeting, White pulled back a bit, dropping the Good Hope Road and Malcolm X bus service projects. Parker tried to win a little good will by offering $10 million from his deed tax proposal to fund these efforts, but White’s amendments sputtered before he could get much further. Mendelson said he had enough questions about the exact fiscal impacts of these requests that he wanted to see the Council wait until its second budget vote to handle them.

That delay could open the door to some compromise. Mendelson noted that White’s plans for renovations at the Eastern, Johnson, and Marvin Gaye facilities total the much more manageable amount of $9 million when taken together, and he may be able to find funding for that purpose (At-Large Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie pledged his support in this area, too).

Notably absent in these discussions about helping communities east of the Anacostia: Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray.

At one point during the meeting, Henderson noted that there were several priorities in Ward 7 on her mind, including the planned delay of the streetcar extension out to the Benning Road Metro station. But Gray wasn’t on hand to provide backup. His office released a statement prior to the meeting that he would miss the budget vote while “recovering from a recent surgery to improve mobility” that was “unrelated to the stroke Gray experienced in 2021.”

The statement added that Gray “shared his concerns with Chairman Mendelson” in a letter before the meeting. But it wasn’t exactly the lengthiest missive, per a copy his office shared with LL, listing out six bullet points where Gray had issues with the budget (including the streetcar delay).

At a time when the Council is grappling with such serious questions about how to invest in east-of-the-river residents, it doesn’t exactly amount to the fiercest advocacy on behalf of his constituents. If Gray can’t be a full participant in budget deliberations, one of the most consequential Council votes of the year, questions about his health (and his management of his Council office) will only get louder.