- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2012

Contentious battles over police staffing and tax increases that marked last year’s D.C. Council budget debate likely won’t be repeated this year, but competing priorities for future revenue again will offer an invitation for mischief.

The $9.4 billion fiscal 2013 budget D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray proposed Friday provides funding for 3,900 sworn officers for the Metropolitan Police Department and does not impose new taxes or fees, even as the District grapples with diminishing support from the federal government.

But continued belt-tightening around the social safety net is already a point of concern for lawmakers, including Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, who said the plan puts a burden on those “least able to contribute.”

The mayor’s budget contains a 25-point priority list that puts a premium on services for the homeless and temporary assistance for families, among other social services, if revised revenue estimates offer a windfall for city coffers. A similar list prompted hours of debate and friction among council members during budget talks last summer, although few of the priorities ended up getting funded.

“I think the wish list is just a wish list and a lot of it will get changed,” said council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat.

Mr. Evans said he was pleased with the overall budget - an important early nod of approval from the chairman of the powerful Committee on Finance and Revenue who has voted against the past two spending plans.

Mr. Gray’s budget would close a $172 million budget gap by making $102 million in cuts and raising $70 million in new revenue, including a massive uptick in automated traffic enforcement and expanded hours for alcohol sales.

The plan to increase “traffic-calming” measures, such as speed and red-light cameras is projected to bring in $24.8 million in revenue after the city spends nearly $5 million on camera equipment.

The revenue projection requires a massive expansion of a program that is already controversial, with police and proponents saying cameras promote safety, while opponents say they are a cash cow.

Traffic cameras generated a record $80.4 million for the District in fiscal 2010 and were on pace to exceed that total in fiscal 2011, AAA Mid-Atlantic said in August after filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the city.

In addition to the camera revenue, the mayor’s plan would institute an aggressive system of penalties and monitoring to collect $28.2 million in unpaid taxes and traffic fines, as the city continues to work to shore up its financial reputation.

Public education comprises more than 20 percent of Mr. Gray’s operating budget at just under $2 billion, a figure that includes almost $64 million to keep up with enrollment increases in the D.C. Public Schools and D.C. Public Charter Schools. It also lays out a six-year, $649 million plan to continue the modernization of city high schools.

The plan also calls for spending on economic development at hot spots such as the St. Elizabeths hospital campus in Ward 8 and the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Ward 4.

Mr. Gray seeks a 3.8 percent increase in overall operating funds and a 4.2 percent increase in local funds from this year’s approved budget.

Among its other proposals, the mayor’s plan would allow city bars to stay open until 3 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends and let stores that sell alcohol open at 7 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. in order to generate $5.3 million in sales tax revenue. It also would allow bars to stay open until 4 a.m. every night and allow restaurants to serve customers around the clock during presidential inauguration weeks in 2013 and 2017.

Although human support services account for 40 percent of the proposed budget, the city’s neediest residents could feel the pain of fiscal restraint.

The plan cuts hospital services and specialty care from the D.C. Alliance, which provides care to about 20,000 low-income people who are not on Medicaid.

“It’s not something I feel good about, but at the end of the day we have to make the most responsible decisions that we can make around the outcomes of the budget,” Mr. Gray said Friday of the cuts.

Council member David A. Catania, at-large independent and chairman of the Committee on Health, told the mayor his cuts to the program are “very serious.”

Signaling future debate, Mr. Catania proposed a freeze on cost-of-living increases in pension plans for police, firefighters and teachers to cover the alliance-related costs and then some, noting pension expenses are sending the District “right back to bankruptcy.”

The fiscal 2013 budget will take effect Oct. 1 after approval from the D.C. Council and Congress.