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D.C. mayor cites ‘emergency’ to raise fees, fines

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The cost of living, working and doing business in the District rose a little more Tuesday, after Mayor Adrian M. Fenty again reneged on his no-tax-increase pledge and implemented "emergency" executive orders that increase scores of fees for business permits and traffic fines to pay for his 2010 and 2011 spending plans.

The increases, which the mayor blames on the D.C. Council, are detailed in Volume 57, No. 22, of the D.C. Register and dated May 25 — one week after the council rejected the mayor's initial proposal to raise taxes.

The plan, which Mr. Fenty characterized as an "emergency" maneuver to balance the budget, would generate an estimated $7 million this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and about $21 million in fiscal 2011.

Fiscal conservative Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and the only lawmaker to vote against the mayor's 2011 spending plan, said Tuesday that he does not support raising taxes, fees or fines by executive fiat or in legislation.

The city needs to curb spending, he said.

Robert V. Brannum, president of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, a citywide coalition of dozens of citizens groups, questioned whether the situation is indeed an "emergency."

Under the mayor's executive order, some traffic fines are doubled, while others increase four or five times as high. At least one infraction, passing a stopped school bus with flashing lights, increases tenfold from $50 to $500.

The Department of Motor Vehicles also increased fines for failing to yield to parades, funeral processions and pedestrians, and for passing fire apparatus or driving over a fire hose. Motorists also can get a $10 ticket for "failure to back into [a parking] space."

The mayor, who is a cyclist, did not include bicycle infractions in his executive order; only motorists are listed in the traffic infractions sections. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association, which continues to push city officials for bike lanes and safety programs, supports increased traffic fines for motorists.

Small and large businesses also began paying higher fees for licenses and permits.

The mayor ordered the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to begin levying a 10 percent fee on "each basic business license to cover the costs of enhanced technological capabilities" of the licensing system, according to the new regulations.

Businesses need basic licenses to operate a broad base of activities, including those that are service-oriented, such as beauty and barber shops, and massage parlors. A barber or beauty shop pays $78 for a license, while a massage parlor owner pays $789.

The increases are necessary because the council "created the potential of an unbalanced budget," the new regulations said. "This emergency rulemaking will contribute the revenue necessary to maintain the District's balanced budget. The revenue obtained will be used to maintain critical services to the District's citizens and thereby preserve their health, safety, and welfare."

But Mr. Brannum of the civic federation said D.C. municipal regulations on emergency fees do not justify Mr. Fenty's actions.

The D.C. Administrative Procedure Act says any emergency must be for the immediate preservation of public peace, health, safety, welfare or morals — and none of those is at stake, Mr. Brannum said.

"I do not see the imposition of these fees [taxes] as an emergency," he said in an e-mail.

Fenty spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said Tuesday that the administration moved as quickly as possible in an effort to minimize unintended consequences of an unbalanced budget.

The mayor is "committed to ensuring the city's budget remains balanced," she said.

Throughout recent budget deliberations, Mr. Evans warned that overspending is threatening the city's fiscal standing. He argued against raising taxes and fees, and spending down the city's savings. But neither the mayor nor the council made substantial cuts.

In fact, some liberal lawmakers — among them Michael A. Brown, at-large independent; Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat; Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat; and Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat — pushed tax increases to pay for increased spending on the poor this election year.

Mrs. Cheh, for example, was the chief lawmaker behind the new 6 percent sales tax on soda, while Mr. Graham proposed raising income taxes.

All 13 lawmakers said the recession has hit the poor the hardest, and they bolstered social services such as housing and health care subsidies, free schooling and job training programs. Even Mrs. Cheh's beverage tax sends money to programs in schools and day care centers.

Mr. Fenty campaigned for mayor in 2006 by pledging not to raise taxes, but this is the second year in a row that he and lawmakers have raised taxes and fees that affect the poor and wealthy alike.

Last year, the mayor and the council raised gas, sales and tobacco taxes. Earlier this year, they imposed a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper carryout bags.

Economists agree that consumption taxes on basic goods and general government-use fees are regressive and hurt the poor the most.

Pollsters and strategists have yet to gauge what impact the new fees and taxes will have on the races for mayor and council. One effect is certain, however: The new sugary-beverage tax will hit the wallet of the athletic Mr. Fenty, who favors vitamin water.

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