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Fenty’s budget plan under fire

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When D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty submits his fiscal 2011 budget proposal to the D.C. Council on Monday, at least two lawmakers will be casting keen eyes on his election-year, tax-raising plan.

Both are at-large members: One, Phil Mendelson, is seeking re-election; the other, Michael Brown, is a freshman who says the mayor's plan will not only hit needy residents already in pain, but also hurt working- and middle-class D.C. residents.

Anti-litter and street-cleaning programs would be cut. Parking and traffic fees would rise. Hospitals and health care organizations would face higher taxes.

Council members want a more tightfisted approach.

Mr. Fenty, who released his $5.27 billion local budget on April 1, wants to increase spending on schools, public safety agencies and human services. His money-saving measures include cutting more than 380 jobs, renegotiating contracts with 10 of the city's largest vendors and eliminating parking subsidies for city workers.

The mayor says his plan will solve "a $523 million budget gap without raising taxes on District residents" and maximize efficiency during hard economic times. Mr. Fenty says he "asked every agency to dig deep."

Lawmakers question whether they dug deep enough and in the right places, with Mr. Brown and Mr. Mendelson particularly concerned about spending.

Mr. Brown cited school spending, asking why a public system needs a $1.4 billion-plus budget while it loses thousands of students in enrollment each year.

The Fenty administration laid off teachers and other school employees last year, citing budget pressures. Now it will have to find money to cover a new pay package for teachers that dates retroactively to October 2007 and ends in September 2012. The mayor also says he wants to continue ongoing school-reform plans and carry out several others by increasing per-pupil spending, replacing one-time federal stimulus dollars ($63.8 million) and giving charter schools new money ($85 million) for facilities. These and other spending plans can be carried out without raising taxes, the mayor says.

But Mr. Mendelson disputes the mayor's claim, saying fees are taxes according to the D.C. Code, and Mr. Brown says increases in taxes are coming.

Mr. Brown says he is disappointed with the Fenty spending proposal and is ready to draw battle lines — with the Fenty administration on one side, and residents and voters who don't have another nickel to spare on the other. The obvious decline in traditional school enrollment — from 80,000 20 years ago to 45,190 in 2008-09 — might not justify the mayor's request, he said.

"My first thought when the budget was released was that the main focus should have been on closing the budget gap, to give [the council] something" to work with, Mr. Brown said in an interview. "But increase in education? Where are the students? The other question, if the cuts aren't deep enough, how are you going to raise revenue? … Be prepared for tax increases that can hit Marylanders and Virginians?"

Mr. Brown is an independent council member, but one whose Democratic roots run deep and whose late father was Ron Brown, a former Democratic National Committee chief and a secretary of commerce during the Clinton administration. During budget deliberations, Mr. Brown said, he will make his position patently clear to the mayor and other city officials.

"No deep cuts in social services. We have the highest per-pupil spending in the nation. … There are 700,000 jobs in the city, [yet] 72 percent of them are held by people outside the District of Columbia. I'm aligning myself with the people who need help," said Mr. Brown, chairman of the Housing and Workforce Development Committee and a member of the Human Services Committee.

Mr. Mendelson, chairman of the Public Safety and the Judiciary Committee, says he has several priorities that aren't necessarily aligned with the mayor's, chief among them a fiscally sound budget that does "as little damage as possible to law enforcement," belt-tightening, leadership from the executive branch and more help for offenders and ex-offenders.

Mr. Mendelson also said he is angry at overspending by officials with the Fire and Emergency Management Services agency.

"I'm just disgusted with the fiscal management in Fire and EMS. They have $12 million in unbudgeted spending, and it's outrageous the mayor is giving them more," said Mr. Mendelson, who was first elected in 1998 and is seeking a fourth term.

"The Department of Corrections budget continues to get whacked, and the problem with cutting Corrections is your correctional system, just like those around the country, has a high recidivism rate … [of] two-thirds. We underinvest in substance-abuse treatment, education and release planning."

Mr. Brown and Mr. Mendelson said they are looking to their chairman — Vincent C. Gray, who is challenging Mr. Fenty in the mayor's race — for leadership during the hearings to keep lawmakers focused on cutting the budget and exposing what Mr. Mendelson deemed any "sleight of hand" moves by the mayor.

"We should end up with reducing the spending," Mr. Mendelson said.

About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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