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The InTowner
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A few days before we went to press the Fair Budget Coalition of the District of Columbia was rallying its followers to gather at the District building to deliver half empty food baskets to every member of the City Council as their way of dramatizing what they view as skewed city budgeting priorities in a time of economic slowdown.

The Coalition points out that “[w]hile many residents struggle with rising costs of food, fuel, and other necessities, the budget as proposed by the Mayor and [recently] marked up by the DC Council . . . includes NO new funding for the Local Rent Supplement Program, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or the Fresh Food Opportunity Bank. In addition, funding for the Housing Production Trust Fund has declined by $30 million due to falling deed taxes.”

Their alarm is properly sounded; they have raised an issue of genuine concern and their fear that our city leaders may be failing to deal with these concerns is shared by us as well.

Money is tight; we know that and it is not especially useful for the city’s finance people to remind us of this fact. But what we wonder is why, when they know this, they still do not appear to be aggressively seeking economies in ways that might make it possible not to cut vital programs or fund such programs at inadequate levels. If the citizens who most need help are deprived even more than they have been, down the road the burden on the city’s treasury will be even greater than it is now. Let us not be “penny-wise and pound-foolish” — even if such is a long-standing American tradition.

In times like these, as tax receipts are falling off and the rosy projections of just a couple of years ago now ring hollow, we are especially pained at last month’s revelation by the city’s Inspector General that millions of dollars of Department of Consumer & Regulatory (DCRA) permit fees and fines collected appear to have been systematically evaporating on their way to the city treasury. Worse, apparently there has been for a considerable time no viable system of accounting for either the posting of these funds by DCRA or of their transmittal and posting to the city’s accounts by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer.

Maybe if somebody could locate all those missing millions then the programs the Coalition singles out as being especially vulnerable might be able to be more adequately funded.

And, of course, there is a vast array of programs and special projects sucking money out from the treasury, each with its own vocal constituencies that make it very difficult for any well-intentioned city council member to resist. And, let’s be honest: If any member of the Council starts sounding off like Senator McCain (famous for his denunciations of “pork barrel” spending), he or she is likely to be shown the door by the voters in the ward. That’s just how it is. (Is this a great country or what?)

But, there are times when council members can loudly say “no” to some of that “pork” and not fear voter ire. That would be when the proposed funding is so beyond the pale that no rational voter will claim a bad thing was done to disallow it. An example that comes to mind — admittedly, fairly bizarre in our view — is the Mayor’s insistence that the Council appropriate $10 million for a contribution to the Ford’s Theater restoration fund. What drives us and others up the wall about this is that Ford’s is a federal historic landmark run by the National Park Service. It’s no more a local historic site than the Jefferson Memorial. Should we be ready to donate to the fund that is sure to be established for the purpose of stabilizing the thing that is slowly sinking into the Tidal Basin just because, like Ford’s, it’s here in the city and DC residents can visit it? What nonsense, of course.

No, that $10 million would be much better used for neighborhood-oriented cultural and educational projects that struggle now to stay afloat and if viable can do much to improve life for so many of our citizens who do not otherwise have easy access to the opportunities of the more affluent.

And, while we are looking to nit-pick expenditures, we have to wonder why the city’s Department of Employment Services, when it recently mailed out letters to all DC employers (our company received more than one, a waste in itself) encouraging participation in the Summer Youth Program they mailed them at the single first class letter rate of forty-one cents each! That’s what individuals pay to mail their own letters. But, why didn’t the agency do as all large businesses do, which is to send the first class mail in bulk for more than a 50 percent savings on each mailed piece? We will admit that in relation to the city’s gargantuan budget this is probably small change indeed, but the failure of agency managers to look at all practical ways to cut costs, when multiplied across the full spectrum of DC government operations makes us believe that it is failures like this compounded umpteen times that are contributing to the overall tightening of available funds for important programs and services.