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The InTowner
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We’ve been fuming over an appalling news item published in the February 28th issue of the Washington Post. We refer to the report that 51 homeowners who had been approved by the DC Department of the Environment for reimbursement of approximately one-third of the cost of installing solar panels had the rug pulled out from under them, notwithstanding that they had proceeded in good faith believing that the city’s approval was something they could rely on. Apparently not.

An important component of the city’s program to encourage homeowners and businesses to invest in making their buildings “green” and to thereby reap substantial savings in energy costs, which also would ultimately contribute to the lessening of needed generating capacity by Pepco, the Renewable Energy Incentive Plan was initiated in 2009. Authorized to run through fiscal year 2012, the budgeted amount for each year was set at $2 million. Of the current fiscal year’s $2 million budget, the reimbursements to the 51 homeowners amounted to $700,000. By suddenly canceling the program the city will save $700,000 this fiscal year on the backs of 51 individuals who made their commitments to spend substantial funds of their own to participate in a program promoted by the city.

Shame, shame. Whoever made this decision should be ashamed. Frankly, we would like to see the 51 dumped-on homeowners file a class action lawsuit against the city for violating its contracts with these persons. Is it now to be that one cannot ever trust DC to stand by its word and meet its obligations, especially to its own citizens? Surely that $700,000 can be found.

Why was it more critical for the city to squander funds on fancy executive model SUVs with all the trimmings for politicians and bureaucrats who have an over-inflated sense of self-importance? Why is it necessary to pay certain senior city employees salaries in excess of even the mayor himself? No employee should be paid more money than the city’s chief executive. Nobody is so incredibly indispensable that they need to be paid an outrageous wage for fear that they will go elsewhere; there’s a plethora of enormous talent right here in town already capable of doing any and all jobs in municipal government.

In fact, with so much talent and abundance of skills and expertise right here in the city itself, we have to question why so much of city department and agency work is outsourced to independent contractors — too often performing work that can be done in-house. An example that immediately comes to mind is how frequently we receive press releases and calls from public relations firms on behalf of agencies that already have their own in-house public information staffs. While not big bucks in the grand scheme of things, this kind of farming out work that can and should be done by DC employees is emblematic of a culture of careless spending and skewed priorities.

There are council members who are hot to solve our fiscal problem by raising taxes. We applaud the Federation of Citizens Associations of DC and 34 member associations across the city for their joint resolution adopted last month that there must be no new DC taxes for the fiscal year starting on October 1st.

This does not mean to suggest that we are all for doing away with critical health, social services and public safety programs. What it means for us is that both the mayor’s office as well as all members of the city council take a very hard look at every single proposed expenditure and scrap anything that has no bearing on ensuring the priorities mentioned above or ensuring the continuation of programs and functions that serve the need for promoting jobs and neighborhood economic development and neighborhood quality of life, which goes hand-in-hand with the economic component.

People will say — and do so already — that we must not take away funds from the schools. Of course, there can be no question that a key component of building a healthy DC economy is to ensure quality education. This notion — which is a correct one — is so strong, however, that it seems that nobody is prepared to deny the school system all the money it keeps demanding. But we wonder whether all that we have been giving to it is so absolutely necessary.

In testimony presented to the city council on March 4th, Mary Levy, a former budget analyst in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, had this to say at the outset: “I have studied DCPS data, particularly those related to budget and staffing, for over 30 years. . . . Even as enrollment has declined in recent years, the number of central office employees in DCPS has risen. . . . About 100 central office employees make more than $100,000 a year.” In a posting on the twice-weekly e-newsletter TheMail, she wrote. “Central administration employees rose by . . . 18 percent during Rhee’s tenure, while enrollment went down by . . . 12 percent.”

What are all these highly paid school central office people doing? We suspect they are the ones who are managing the excessive, crazed testing regimen that has turned the schools into test prep mills. In fact, this pathological need to test and test makes one wonder if it wouldn’t be better simply to contract out everything to the Kaplan Test Prep company (!). Surely this emphasis on testing is having a truly dulling effect on students for whom school is no longer a place for true learning. All it will produce will be a cadre of young people entering the workforce who will be good at memorizing but lousy at analysis and creative thinking. Employers will not want them. If employers continue to have difficulty hiring truly talented workers then it will be a daunting task to encourage new businesses to settle in DC — and that will not be good for economic growth.