IS ALL REALLY WELL WITH DC FINANCES?
NOT BY A LONG SHOT!
[from March 2002 issue]

PRIOR EDITORIALS ARCHIVED HERE


Last month we asked the question and suggested reasons for grave concern. This month we now have the answer to the question. A big fat "No"! Looks like we may be sliding back to the Good Old Days, otherwise known as the Barry-for-Life Era--especially now that we hear he will respond to his "calling" to return to politics, presumably by challenging Phil Mendelson for his at-large council seat next fall: and he'll win it and it'll be just like days of yore.

Especially if Mayor Williams gets his way by insisting on proceeding with the next phase of the income tax rate reduction, which we cannot afford, while at the same time latching on to what will be an incredible homeowners' real property tax receipts windfall that will flow in light of the astronomical jumps in assessments. The mayor has already claimed that his spending 'till we drop plan has factored in that windfall, even as the assessment notices are still in the mail.

Well, he's nuts! Fifty and 60 percent increases are bad enough, but we're even seeing 90 percent increases in the 17th Street area. (Remember those residents a couple of years ago who claimed that the presence of JR's Bar & Grill was causing their property values to suffer? Don't they wish!)

Now, some of our more sensible politicians on the city council are making noises like they agree with us. Maybe they read our editorial of last month. For example, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who has hitherto performed admirably as chairman of the council's finance committee, has moved to impose a 25 percent cap on assessments. Likewise, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. But what good will that do for all the homeowners who already have received their 50 percent and higher assessments for September's tax billing cycle? We tried to pose this question, along with some related ones, to Mr. Evans, but our call was not returned. That's unfortunate, since we might have been able to pass along to our readers some useful insights.

No, what is urgently required right this minute is a bold move to slash the 96-cents per $100 assessed value rate. We did hear somewhere that the council did, in fact, reduce that rate last year, but an examination of our own residential property tax bill does not reveal any change in rate. Again, that was something we were hoping to clarify with Mr. Evans. But, no matter, it's got to be done now--yesterday, for that matter.

The mayor worries that there will be a $100 million gap next fiscal year between income and expenses. $100 million: Isn't that about the same amount as all that evaporated money that the school board lost rack of last year and about which the mayor said we shouldn't be too worried about because, after all, we still had about $90 million or so in the accumulated surplus? For a guy who only rents and doesn't have to dig around to find money twice a year to pay real estate taxes he's pretty casual about the whole thing!

Obviously, we do not advocate cutting the budget so much that we return to the days of virtually no city services, but the drumbeat of reform in fiscal management still pounds away and not a lot of progress has really been made. Why won't anyone ever get prosecuted for violating the anti-deficiency act, for example? It's always the same refrain: we'll get to fix it some day, just give us more time, yada yada yada. Meanwhile, city managers who let our money slip away or be diverted to their contractor buddies or who don't complete the necessary paperwork causing forfeiture of vast amounts of otherwise available federal program funds just go about their daily routines, getting handsomely paid by you and me.

We know that we are only echoing the seething resentments of thousands of hard-working taxpayers across the city. One of these days they may really lose their patience and storm city hall; we wouldn't blame them one bit. If our officials, whether elected, appointed, or simply hired won't perform their management duties properly they ought to be removed pronto and those that are found to be egregiously negligent ought to be made to pay for their errors through restitution or even jail as the law presently provides.

Maybe our sentiments--and disgust and anger--are best reflected by what one disillusioned taxpayer circulated to an email list recently:

"Did you get your property assessment? Apparently the city has tied the property assessment directly to the average overall increase in crime and the average overall decrease in city services. My assessment increased 81 percent. Since the community hates gentrifiers, perhaps after we leave, the loss of both property tax and income taxes paid can be made up by the churches and drop-in shelters."