IS ALL REALLY WELL WITH DC FINANCES?
[from February 2002 issue]

PRIOR EDITORIALS ARCHIVED HERE


On January 29th, The Washington Post trumpeted in a Metro section headline, "D.C. Budget Has Hefty Surplus." The ensuing article, while noting that officials were tempering their enthusiasm with some cautionary notes, they appeared nevertheless to be somewhat in gloating mode. The Post even reported Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who chairs the council's finance committee, as having repeated a remark made to him by the mayor touching on the budget woes in Virginia, to wit--"Maybe they need a control board down there." Cute, but let's not get cocky, please.

We're not discounting some phenomenal strides that occurred here in DC over the past few years, but most the credit has to go to the (now departed) control board and the booming economy of the Clinton era that translated into a booming real estate market in the city, fueled in large part by newcomers who reveled in an urban lifestyle, that translated into incredible tax receipts.

This is not to say that the mayor and his team didn't exercise a great deal of positive influence, but, frankly, we think that if it hadn't been for a vigilant city council, particularly the constant oversight provided by finance chairman Jack Evans, joined by at-large Councilmember David Catania, with the backing of the finance committee and the other council members, there would have been a good deal of money being frittered away.

Of course, $100 million of school funds would have not evaporated if the council's education committee, chaired by Ward 7's Kevin Chavous, had been performing vigorous oversight. Where did all that money go? Lost, squandered, maybe stolen, who knows? All we get is yada yada yada excuses from the head of the school board. At the same time, the mayor's finance officials say we don't really need to be worried because there is plenty of money in the surplus to cover these evaporated millions. Great. So instead of having only $91 million in surplus now, we could have had twice as much. Let's hold our breath that the school board doesn't lose another $100 million by next summer!

The Post also informed us that there are council members who are pushing to continue the tax cut, although some are urging that it be suspended at this point. We hope Chairman Evans is one of the proponents of caution on this front. It would be a serious mistake to squander that small (and it really is small when one thinks of the city's vast, unmet needs) surplus on a tax cut that would not yield much noticeable individual tax relief but could find us in a position of needing to pay higher taxes down to road to cover an ensuing deficit.

Now we have said this before, but we repeat it here so there be no mistake as to where we stand: Thanks to the Congress and a long line of Presidents, we citizens have been getting the shaft for over 100 years when it comes to our local government's ability--or even right--to do what all other governments in this country can do to raise taxes. But until the time comes--and maybe it will sooner than later--we must proceed as if we will never be able to collect income taxes on commuters' wages earned in DC or real property taxes on over 50 percent of the land in the city.

We must keep on fighting the good fight, a fight which can be won without insisting that we become an actual state. But even if we get this right to raise revenue in a predictable and sane fashion as is done everywhere else, that won't mean we will not have to pay attention to how our official, elected and non-elected, spend our money.

We sometimes wonder at the inanity of decisions made when appointing people to high-level positions for which they have no qualifications or, even worse, have misrepresented their qualifications. It seems that these kinds of appointments always go to officials who occupy highly sensitive positions of trust that do affect the expenditure of public funds. And yet, the city's ability to perform the most basic vetting of candidates never seems to improve, even after the embarrassments of the Barry years. One has only to recall the recent discovery that the highly touted general counsel to the city's chief financial officer didn't even meet the required qualifications for the job, didn't have the academic degrees claimed and was not a licensed attorney. They had to let him go, but only because his deception was discovered by accident.

This is only one of a number of high-profile personnel failures, but the kind of failure that can lead to a wrecking of the improving fiscal control system that city officials have begun to put into place. We cannot afford this sort of failure and we cannot be sanguine simply because we have a $91 million surplus this week, which could turn out to be a big fat zero next summer for all we know.