- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The D.C. Council on Tuesday tentatively approved a revised version of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s $9.4 billion fiscal 2013 budget that does not include new taxes or fees, but dedicates more than $20 million to affordable housing programs by leveraging funds tied to the sale of city-owned land.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown garnered praise from his colleagues for addressing many spending priorities without demanding more money from city taxpayers. The body voted 12-0 in favor of the budget ahead of a final vote scheduled for June 5.

“They talk about legislators in Maryland who can’ t get it right. They talk about legislators in Virginia who can’t get it right,” Mr. Brown said, referencing recent headlines. “Today, we delivered for the District of Columbia.”

Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat who cheered $11 million in local funding for arts programs, said the fiscal 2013 budget is one that “for the first time in three years I am going to support.”

The budget crafted by Mr. Brown emphasizes a key talking point among city lawmakers — the lack of low-cost housing in the District — by asking Mr. Gray to place the anticipated $18 million from the sale of a city lot on K Street into the Housing Production Trust Fund, a pool of money set up in 1989 to build affordable housing units.

Mr. Gray had intended to use the money for parks and improvements in the NoMa neighborhood near H and North Capitol streets in Northeast.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Brown said the chairman “still sees the NoMa areas as a priority” and placed the parks funding as the No. 4 priority on a list that will fund initiatives, one by one, if enough new money comes into the city’s coffers through revised revenue estimates in June and September.

Mr. Brown’s plan also dedicates $4 million to the local rent subsidy program over the next four years and $2.5 million to the Home Purchase Assistance Program to help residents get interest-free loans and assistance with closing costs. It also establishes a a permanent tax exemption for nonprofit developers who build affordable housing units.

“That is the political will that we had hoped for,” said council member Michael A. Brown, at-large independent who led the charge for affordable housing funds during budget talks.

In a statement, Mr. Gray thanked the council for approving a budget “that closely tracks my priorities.”

Based on Tuesday’s discourse, a difference of opinion over expanded bar hours could be one of the few contentious issues for the council to consider before putting its final stamp of approval on the plan.

Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat who oversees alcohol regulation, is adamantly opposed to part of Mr. Brown’s plan that would raise about $2 million by extending bars’ hours until 4 a.m. during the week of the presidential inauguration and certain holidays. Mr. Graham said he is still trying to find about $2 million to cover the budget gap would be left by scrapping the plan.

“I would imagine he’s going to continue down that path to see where it leads him,” Mr. Brown said after the hearing.

Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, successfully moved an amendment that requires Mr. Gray to file a report on the effect that extended bar hours had on surrounding neighborhoods during the 19 days outlined in the chairman’s plan.

Building on the measure, council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, asked that the mayor include the impact of allowing liquor stores open at 7 a.m. instead of 9 a.m., a change that is included in the fiscal 2013 budget.

Council member David Catania, at-large independent, and Mr. Gray said they set aside heated differences from earlier in the week and agreed to devote $13 million in local funds to restore a hospital care benefit to members of the D.C. HealthCare Alliance, which primarily serves immigrants who are not eligible for Medicaid. The city will also leverage federal Medicaid dollars to provide emergency care for those in the Alliance.

“Today’s agreement is, of course, a victory for equality in our city,” Mr. Catania said from the dais.

Mr. Brown’s budget, which may be amended by a majority vote among council members before their final vote, also emphasizes economic development along Pennsylvania Avenue in Southeast and funds education initiatives.

Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, obtained a much-needed $4 million in capital funds to replace a portion of the Metropolitan Police Department’s vehicle fleet.

“We’re on the brink of a situation that could be very bad and embarrassing,” he said, “both for the District and the police department.”