- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2007

D.C. officials are trying to use a legal loophole to take financial control of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority.

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi wants control of WASA so he can appoint somebody to help manage the agency’s money and affirm the District’s financial authority under the Home Rule Act.

Gandhi spokeswoman Maryann Young said the move for control of WASA would be for “consistency” and that “the Home Rule Act says that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Congress in 1973 approved home rule, then created a CFO in 1995 along with the financial control board to oversee the city’s finances and help correct years of fiscal mismanagement.

Congress and the D.C. Council also amended the home-rule charter in 2001 to give the District a CFO in the post-control board era.

Mr. Gandhi’s proposed change could be accomplished through an addition to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s Budget Support Act. The addition was introduced by council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, and would amend legislation to make clear the agency is subject to oversight by the CFO. It also would change the Home Rule Act to clarify the CFO’s authority.

Mr. Graham said the change is needed to resolve the disparity between the federal charter and the city legislation that created WASA. He said the change also would make the agency akin to such organizations as the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., which has a Gandhi-appointed CFO and a budget that cannot be touched by the council.

“I think this is so much of a tempest that we just need to get it resolved one way or another,” Mr. Graham said.

WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson is among those who object the most strongly to the proposed change.

He said the agency has done well on its own, routinely receiving clean audits and having a strong bond rating.

“We’ve been functioning that way ever since the organization was established,” Mr. Johnson said. “The numbers speak for themselves.”

“We’re fairly unique from other entities of the District government,” he told The Washington Times. “We’ve never had any credit-card scandals, or contracting scandals or other things that have occurred within some of the organizations that [Mr. Gandhi] actually provides oversight and guidance for today.”

He said the agency also must be fiscally independent from the District to respond quickly to industry changes and negotiate deals with a minimum of red tape.

WASA has a CFO who reports to Mr. Johnson and has the authority to issue bonds and run its own procurement system. The agency develops its own budget, which is incorporated into the District’s budget, then forwarded to Congress.

The agency was previously part of the D.C. Department of Public Works. Mr. Johnson said before WASA was created as an independent agency in 1996, D.C. officials dipped into its money for other city functions.

WASA provides services to roughly 500,000 customers in the District, and collects and treats wastewater for 1.6 million customers in surrounding suburbs including Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

So bringing the agency under the CFO’s control also is a concern for Fairfax County Executive Anthony H. Griffin, who sits on WASA’s 11-member board of directors.

He also said WASA has worked well in its current configuration.

“So the question is ‘What is it that we’re fixing?’ ” he asked.

The struggle likely will be decided by Congress, which must approve Mr. Fenty’s Budget Support Act.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform — which has legislative jurisdiction over the District — authored legislation that approved the creation of WASA and crafted the bill that created the District’s CFO.

Mr. Davis, Virginia Republican, said he supports WASA and has “the utmost respect” for Mr. Gandhi, but says changes in the agency’s structure would be scrutinized.

“I, of course, continue to support the integrity of” WASA, he said. “Any proposed local amendments submitted to Congress with the Budget Support Act will be carefully reviewed.”

Mr. Graham said he would welcome a congressional decision.

“This is an effort to bring the issue to a head, frankly,” he said. “The only way this is going to get resolved, that I can see, is for Congress to resolve it.”

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