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The InTowner
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“No one here today is happy to be here,” the Washington Post reported City Council Chairman Vincent Gray saying on November 11 when the Council voted unanimously not only to accept the Mayor’s proposal to cut a little more than $130 million from the budget but also to freeze an additional $46+ million in new spending for at least a few months.

The action taken was prudent and wise and demonstrated that our elected politicians do have the courage and smarts to make hard choices in the face of disappointed and vocal critics if conditions truly warrant. The present national and international fiscal crisis — already having a notable negative fiscal impact on our city — without question represents the very sort of condition that, if not confronted head-on and immediately as the Council has done, would surely be the cause of far greater citizen pain than will the budget cutting and sequestering of additional funds.

As Chairman Gray so aptly responded to Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry’s plea that the decision be postponed because, according to the Post‘s account, it represents “too much money and too much potential program impact to vote today,” reducing, delaying and cutting programs is very painful but “[t]rying to duck the reality of the situation will only continue the pain.”

And from what we have learned, it does appear that the chairman’s pragmatic and even-handed urging carried the day with even Marion Barry, whom we also applaud for ultimately exercising leadership in the face of strong constituent pressures.

We think the Council’s action demonstrated that the members were performing an often overlooked responsibility of elected officials — that is, to truly lead. There is more to the job of being a legislator than to always act only for the interests of one’s direct constituents; there are times like now, when elected officials have to stand up and make clear that the larger enterprise needs to be protected and that until whatever genuine crisis is out there is resolved everyone needs to think in terms of the greater good.

In that spirit, we hope that our fellow citizens will be willing to see some of their favorite programs and even needed projects take a back seat if it will mean that the city will be able to avoid the kind of fiscal meltdown not so long ago that caused the Congress to impose on us the onerous Financial Control Board that was answerable not to us but to the Congress.

Let us not pressure our council members to attempt to squeeze funding out of a budget that is so pared down that to give in would only jeopardize the prudent steps already taken to ensure a needed reserve fund to offset greater reduced revenue collections than at this time we can correctly predict.

Revenues that the city should even now be collecting are not coming in anywhere like they have in past years. The ripple effect caused by banks not loaning, by credit card companies cutting spending limits and raising fees, by average shoppers suddenly not shopping except when absolutely essential, with restaurant-goers not ordering pre-dinner cocktails or a bottle of wine but by the glass only or switching to a beer and avoiding pricey appetizers and deserts, with home sales and other real property transfers nearly stalled, and on and on and on, the tax dollars coming in to the city are getting less and less.

How will this loss of city revenue be made up? Well, there are already suggestions, such as Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham’s proposal to increase parking meter charges by 50 percent and even to impose them on Saturdays. That, he claims, will bring in an additional $8 million. At first blush that sounds reasonable; after all, is it really a hardship to ask drivers to put six quarters into a meter for one hour’s worth of parking time instead of the four they now pay? We cannot say for sure, but what we do think about is the “Law of Unintended Consequences” — might this seemingly benign fee increase create a psychological barrier to people wanting to drive here and there to shop? We don’t know, but what we do know is the consumer is fickle and at this time in a panic the slightest thing can create aneven greater spending backlash.

Consider the small monthly increase Comcast has just imposed on its subscribers to their “Expanded Basic” service. May not seem like much, but it took the monthly charge from about $57+ to nearly $62 — the $60 barrier has now been breached and that is already causing subscribers to consider alternatives, maybe even giving up cable. And at the same time many subscribers to that service are taking another look at what they have been getting and realizing that the cable company has actually been moving favorite channels off that service to the premium service and leaving those slots devoid of anything. So, less for more money. Not a good thing at a time when people are so carefully watching their nickels and dimes.

Well, we may have digressed here, but what our Comcast detour is saying is that it doesn’t take much of a push to get people to re-evaluate every small expenditure and the more they do that the more the city loses and it is because our council members understand this dynamic and recognize that tax revenues will be even more vulnerable that they were correctly proactive in taking the action they did. And, to the extent that additional funds should be authorized for programs, we urge that it should only be for programs that are designed to create jobs or to jump-start a specific sector of our local economy that could have a positive ripple effect beyond even that specific sector.