- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2000

There is something noble about Natwar Gandhi, the District's newly appointed independent chief financial officer (CFO). Something about him that is worthy of admiration. Even as he sits chatting at an ungodly hour in the Old Ebbit Grill over a plate of scrambled eggs and orange juice, his humility is unyielding. Despite persuasive efforts, he will not step into the murky waters of finger-pointing and blame-laying. He refuses to take the opportunity to gloat over the failure of his predecessor, Valerie Holt, and the fact that racial and gender politics played last year by local officials in her selection ultimately left them embarrassed by her disastrous performance.

Those of us who know Mr. Gandhi aren't surprised that he won't shine his star on someone else's back. But then, he doesn't have to; his record shouts his dedication, determination and brilliance.

A former U.S. General Accounting Office associate director, with 30 years of financial management experience and impressive stints in academia, Mr. Gandhi, since coming to the District in 1997, has performed a near miracle at the Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR). When he arrived at OTR, there literally was no filing system; taxpayer returns languished on the floor of some remote office. The cash-strapped city that sat on the edge of bankruptcy was permitting millions of dollars in taxes to go uncollected. And the property-assessment process was horrendous.

Now, taxpayers get refund checks from the District government in two weeks; the feds take as many as six weeks. Tax collections have risen $400 million over the last three years. There are 16,000 more tax filers in the city. This year businesses can use a new web site to file sales taxes and employee withholding taxes. Individual taxpayers this year will be able to file their returns electronically. And, the real property-assessment roll is on the web. Soon people will be able to conduct now-cumbersome deed and title research online.

"He has restored the confidence in the tax collection side of the equation," says D.C. Council member Jack Evans, chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue. Earlier this month, Mr. Gandhi received what his predecessor didn't unanimous endorsement via emergency resolution of his nomination by Mayor Anthony Williams. The CFO is nominated by the mayor, the council has seven days to register its endorsement, but final confirmation lies with the control board; only the control board can fire the CFO. Miss Holt was forced to resign under pressure from the council and the mayor.

"I always thought Nat Gandhi was very capable," continues Mr. Evans. "I don't want to sound like a cheerleader for the guy, but he was my first choice [last year] for the job."

Mr. Gandhi may be Miracle Worker Of The Year, but his greatest challenges still lay ahead. "He's got a mess on his hands," explains Mr. Evans.

"I'm facing the same disarray I faced when I took over OTR," adds Mr. Gandhi. In fact it's worse. Residents should expect financially ominous reports from the new CFO that may sound like those they heard during the first year Mr. Williams was in charge; he felt obliged to fire employees and impose spending restraints.

Mr. Gandhi must rebuild the financial management infrastructure shattered by Miss Holt's incompetence. He must train workers on the new computerized system, re-establish controls of agency budget and finance operations, institute real, performance-based budgeting and get control of overspending by such agencies as the Public Benefits Corporation (PBC), which runs D.C. General Hospital. According to government sources, the PBC already has recorded $44 million in unauthorized spending; earlier this week Mr. Gandhi was being pushed to write yet another check for this cash-draining institution, although doing so is a direct violation of the federal Anti-Deficiency Act.

The most critical measurement of Mr. Gandhi's performance will come in seven months, when the city's fiscal 2000 year-end audit must be completed and presented. If it doesn't come out on time, nothing else will matter. "I can do 10 brilliant things," he says, "but if I don't do that, I don't have a job."

Some officials had believed that it was a new computer system that caused the long delay of the city's fiscal 1999 year-end audit report. But Mr. Gandhi notes that he and his staff recorded on that system the $3 billion in revenues collected last fiscal year. "You have to make sure people understand not just what they're doing but why they're doing it," he adds.

It also helps that as an agency director he invested in personnel training, setting aside an entire floor at his North Capital Street headquarters for classrooms and hiring a director to ensure that workers used the space and upgraded their skills. "An educated, trained employee is an asset," he asserts. And, he's not against using the stumbles of his predecessor to steady himself and prevent future failures, which is why he has reviewed videotapes of those recent budget hearings where finance and Williams administration officials sat speechless as council members pounded them over the abysmal quality of their financial documents. "I told my staff I don't want a repeat performance," Mr. Gandhi says.

If past is prelude, those of us who know the new CFO aren't worried one bit. After a year of rough riding, the city's finances are finally in the hands of a consummate professional. Thank goodness.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide