[from January 2000 issue]


So the city’s bureaucrats and some of our esteemed (and not so esteemed) politicians are all in a snit because a proposal by Ward 2 Councilmember Evans, who chairs that body’s ever-vigilant finance committee, joined equally aggressively (which we very much admire and appreciate) by at-large Councilmember Catania is trying to do the right thing for us beleaguered taxpayers by limiting the ever-upward spiraling residential property taxes.

The mayor and city’s chief financial officer, joined by Ward 3 Councilmember Patterson particularly, appear to be dreadfully out of sorts because the Evans-Catania bill that would save homeowners $17.8 million in additional property taxes this year would mean that the city would “lose” all that money. What’s wrong with this picture?

We say, tough! The bureaucracy has been wallowing in an ill-gotten windfall of cash for the past few years thanks to an out-of-control property tax assessment system that guarantees confiscatory taxes as a result of an overheated real estate market. Under this scheme, the public policy would appear to the uninitiated to be based on an assumption that the reason homeowners in the District of Columbia have purchased homes is not for the purpose of living in them for years to come but merely as yet another yuppie-like investment catch to add to their portfolios, especially as a way to make up for their tech stocks having tanked.

Well, we have news for you: Most of us are around here for the long haul and our homes are that--home, not a speculative investment. It is absolutely unconscionable for any elected official to treat our homes as nothing more than a substitute for paper investments gone bad. Furthermore, it is stupid public policy because to keep on this track will surely guarantee the further outflow of an otherwise (but, sadly disappearing) stable middle class, especially older and retired persons who are living on fixed or limited incomes but have been able to afford living in the city because they have been in their homes for one, two, three or more generations--and those homes have long since been paid for.

Do we really want to drive out those good folk? They’ll be gone before the mayor gets around to buying his own house here. But, this policy is also discouraging first-time homebuyers who look to emerging neighborhoods but then hear of friends and neighbors who did the same thing a couple of years ago and now all of a sudden found that their otherwise modest, starter house suddenly increased 60-70-80 percent or more (we have heard of increases of well over 100 percent), increases that were not attributed to any improvements but simply as a result of the wild marketplace. These would-be first-time homebuyers are being scared away and have been looking to Baltimore for marvelous buys in exciting neighborhoods where prices are, by DC standards, rock-bottom and where the city actually welcomes for themselves and as additions to a cash cow herd, like here.

Contrary to urban legend as interpreted by at-large Councilmember Mendelson, virtually every neighborhood of the city has been adversely affected with tax increases clearly exceeding Evans’ and Catania’s proposed 10 percent annual cap. And, interestingly, it is not the “rich” people in Ward 3 who have been taking the biggest hits; it’s been homeowners in neighborhoods like those east of Connecticut Avenue. (By the way, where does one get the idea that Ward 3 is replete with rich folk? That’s another urban legend. Ward 3 is huge and it covers vastly more ground that just Georgetown and Foxhall. It’s full of AU types and elderly people and one-time civil servants from the days when government workers made decent but not outrageous salaries like today.)

We give absolutely no credence to the Poor House whining of DC officials over a “lost” $17.8 million. The on-going history of outlandish spending, squandering money right and left--the reports never cease and it is nauseating to even contemplate repeating the numerous instances here--and seeming shrugging off when it happens by simply appropriating more funds to drop down the bottomless pit. Just consider the most recent example: the $14.6 million shortfall (3 months into the new fiscal year) that the School Board suddenly discovered but that could have been avoided if corrective measures had been implemented back in the summer when it became apparent that they were headed for yet another financial mismanagement crisis; yet no steps were taken to ward off disaster. So, On January 6 the City Council did what it always does and just threw another $14.6 million into the school system kitty and that “solved” the problem!

But where’s the accountability? How will the School Board members or the school administration ever discipline itself if they are always getting bailed out? Same question with regard to other departments of DC government. Obviously, nobody who works for the city believes the anti-deficiency law will ever be enforced, so what does it matter? We say that it is high time for the city to start seeing to it that enforcement be implemented--let’s send a few spendthrift bureaucrats and their political handmaidens to the pen. We are serious; the law is there: Use it!

The only other alternative is for us taxpayers to start acting like this is California and mount a tax revolt, pass a Jarvis-like (and we don’t mean former Ward 4’s Charlene) provision like was done out there a number of years back. It’s not a productive way to run a government, but it sure as heck could send a signal to the politicians that we won’t put up with being sucked dry as is the case presently.