- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

More on D.C. finances

Wednesday's editorial "A bad call for D.C." criticizes a report from my organization that highlights a serious inequity in the District's property tax system. The editorial includes some factual errors, and it seriously mischaracterizes the report's findings and recommendations. The following is how I think the report should be summarized.
Two years ago, the District ended its "triennial" property assessment system because it was leading to home assessments that were well below market values. This policy change was supported by the D.C. Council and Mayor Anthony Williams. The editorial characterizes this shift to a system that more accurately assesses property values as a tax increase, but I call that fair tax administration.
The return to annual assessments caused huge increases in assessments for many homeowners, particularly those in more affluent neighborhoods. The jumps reflected both the red-hot real estate market of recent years and the fact that homes had been under-assessedfor years. In response to outcries from homeowners, the council enacted a cap that limits property tax increases to 25 percent per year.
While this seemed like a reasonable response to the transition to a new assessment system, it has had highly inequitable results. Nearly all homeowners in affluent neighborhoods, where home values are rising the most, are benefiting from the cap. But almost no homeowners in less affluent neighborhoods are benefiting. This is not because their home values are not rising, but because they are not growing enough to trigger the cap.
This means that owners of the most valuable homes in the city are paying taxes on less than the full value of their home, while owners of more modest homes in less well-off areas are paying tax on the full value of their home. That is inequitable. We found that homes worth $750,000 are getting tax breaks averaging $1,900. We also found that more than half of the cost of this $20 million tax break is going to owners of homes worth $500,000 or more.
Our report recommends limiting the property tax cap to one or two years of eligibility and only to homes worth less than $500,000. This would improve the equity of the District's property tax system by ensuring that all homes are taxed on the full value. It also would raise revenues to address the District's serious revenue shortfall. At a time when the District has had to cut funding for its affordable housing programs, it does not seem right to maintain substantial tax breaks for owners of very expensive homes.
Finally, I would like to point out that my organization has never endorsed raising the District's property tax rate, which is the lowest in the region. Also, we strongly support limiting property and other tax burdens on low-income residents, contrary to the contention of the editorial.
We think that the District already has other more targeted property tax relief mechanisms that serve this purpose much better than the property tax cap.

ED LAZERE
Executive director
D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute
Washington

Explaining D.C.'s per pupil expenditures

The Jan. 19 editorial, "Per-pupil spending," was completely wrong in its assessment of the District of Columbia Public Schools' (DCPS) per pupil expenditure.
The editorial did not take into consideration that, although the District is not a state, it must cover the cost of state-level functions (such as special education tuition and transportation of special-needs students) that counties typically do not assume.
Furthermore, the editorial's analysis is disingenuous and misleading in that it uses data from 1998. As this new reform board has been in office for two years and recently got the green light for another four, I find it most productive to focus on the progress we have made and the work that lies ahead.
The editorial did acknowledge the board's vow to "closely review" Superintendent Paul Vance's budget request for $848 million. In fact, in addition to weeks of background research, board members met with each division of DCPS to have every respective section of the budget justified. After changes were made, the board met again to review the budget and then again to vote on the budget. We wanted to ensure that every requested dollar was linked to the goal of improving student achievement.
Last year, Facilities and Finance Committee Co-Chairman William Lockridge led a successful board effort to overhaul the way the school system approaches budgeting. DCPS now, for the first time, has a performance-based budget that sets benchmarks against which we can measure the progress of students, teachers and our central administration. DCPS did not proceed arbitrarily with this work, for this budget directly corresponds to the tenets of our Strategic Business Plan a plan endorsed by the mayor and D.C. Council.
In the past two years, we have set a new standard for community outreach, engaging the public by holding scores of meetings, hearings and round tables. D.C. parents and other stakeholders consistently told us that they want their children to have the same opportunities available to children in the suburbs. They want their children to be able to compete for jobs.
The board's work will not be driven by unfounded criticism. We will let hard data and exact research lead us. About 60 percent of the increases within our fiscal 2004 budget request represent the cost of continuing current programs and operations at the same level as this year. This includes a standard increase for inflation, a mayoral endorsed teacher pay raise and federal legal requirements. Twenty-three percent of this increase pays for school building repairs and asbestos abatement in rapidly crumbing school buildings that are, on average, 65 years old. The remaining 17 percent covers the cost of our compliance with President Bush's No Child Left Behind Actand the costs associated with implementing phase II of the Business Plan for Strategic Reform.
Consider that Montgomery County, with a population of about 800,000, spends about $2 billion to fund its entire budget, half of which goes to education. The District, with a significantly smaller population of 600,000, spends about $5 billion on its entire budget with only 17 percent of that dedicated to education. If it costs the District exponentially more to take care of fewer people, then doesn't it stand to reason that it would also cost much more to educate our children?
Even with the board's requested increase for fiscal 2004, the District will still spend no more than 20 percent of its entire budget on education.
The editorial got it right in recognizing that the District does face an education crisis. We have a socioeconomically disadvantaged school population and a citizenry that is not optimally literate. Sixty-six percent of our students are low-income, compared to 50 percent in Alexandria, 38 percent in Arlington and only about 20 percent in Montgomery and Fairfax counties. This means DCPS must spend more education funding on social services that are not factored into the budgets of other school districts.
The current board knows all too well what our students need. As I've stated before, "A city of magnificent intentions can only forecast its future through the filter of its children's needs and possibilities."

PEGGY COOPER CAFRITZ
President
D.C. Board of Education
Washington

U.N. has dug its own grave

Contrary to Curtis Francis Doebbler's contention ("U.S. at fault for delegitimizing U.N.," Letters, Friday), there is no need for the United States or any other nation to delegitimize the United Nations. By its own actions particularly in the past year and certainly during the past 20 years that world body has rendered itself irrelevant.
With the recent ascension to high posts within the United Nations of such countries as Libya, Iraq, Iran and Syria, the United Nations has lost all of its previous, minimal credibility. With that body now in the hands of rogue nations antagonistic to the democratic ideals and ethics of our nation, we have a world body of little use for establishing policies to be followed by either the United States or other freedom-loving countries. The United Nations is a farce, and the sooner we become aware of that, the better.

NELSON MARANS
Silver Spring

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