The InTowner
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From the Publisher's Desk...

A FEW THOUGHTS ABOUT SPENDING PRIORITIES

In this space last month we went all out lambasting some of the members and the chairman of the City Council for what we see as distressing signs of how things are not good at city hall.

Among other things we were very critical of the behind-the-scenes “horse-trading” that allowed for the budget to include at-large Councilmember Vincent Orange’s $500,000 give-away to once again help support U Street’s historic Lincoln Theatre. This would be a worthy cause if it was simply a one-time thing for a competent management to get matters stabilized, but it’s been an on-going subsidy for what seems like forever. Initially, we were supportive, but that was when we believed the then new management knew what it was doing. Not publicly revealed while he was making his pitch was that he serves on the theater’s board as its treasurer.

Another inappropriate demand for earmarking funds in this time of fiscal exigency –- and these are earmarks, despite the Council’s resolution last year to prohibit earmarking –- was for $500,000 to pay for celebrating Emancipation Day next year. This kind of expenditure of scarce public funds, especially when this is the kind of event that should –- and could –- be paid for with privately raised funds, hardly gives us confidence that, with just a few exceptions, the council members can be entrusted to be true stewards of our money.

It would seem that our strong denunciation of these two bad examples of wasteful spending may have helped turn the tide: When the Council met in its last session and enacted the budget measure at second reading, these two items were placed far down on the priority list of items to be funded in the event that projected revenues would come in higher than previously assumed.

Now, given that the Chief Financial Officer has reported an anticipated revenue increase of only $77 million, we don’t have to worry about another million dollars being wasted. That’s the good news.

But there is also continuing bad news. While one of the absolute priority items at or near the top of the list was for $11 million to ensure that the police department maintains its force at 3,700 officers, that will not be possible now, seemingly because an apparent higher priority budget item remains in place: $32 million to fund reimbursement rate increase to the outside contractor that provides health care services for low-income residents. While this seems like a critical priority, at-large Councilmember David Catania who chairs the committee overseeing the city’s health and hospital needs, has stated that he never requested these funds and that they are not needed since the Department of Health Care Finance’s $2 billion budget can absorb those costs. Something is very fishy about this; we need to seriously question who or what is behind slipping this expenditure through even though the city’s expert on these matters says it’s nuts.

Some might be wondering why we have been so critical of the attempts to fund the Lincoln Theatre and Emancipation Day celebrations and not complain about the $1.8 million that definitely will be spent for the neighborhood “Green Teams”? It might be argued that paying the faith-based private contractors to employ ex-offenders for sweeping up in neighborhood business districts is a very low priority. However, in our view, this program –- which in one report was dismissively referred to as a “beautification” program –- is actually a real jobs program and, as such, in our view must be high priority. These ex-offenders are not only getting the important boost needed for return to being productive wage earners but are right now being paid real money which means they buy things which is good for neighborhood businesses and the city collects more taxes to boot! In this instance, the Council has acted intelligently.