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D.C. Council considers bar hours trade-off

New plan would raise nearly $2M

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The D.C. Council is considering a budget compromise that allows bars to stay open until 4 a.m. on all federal and D.C. holidays, some specified holiday weekends and the week of the presidential inauguration in lieu of Mayor Vincent C. Gray's plan to keep taps flowing for an extra hour every night of the year.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown said the new plan would raise nearly $2 million. The fruits of the extra holiday hours, combined with a reallocation of $1.2 million in special-purpose revenue within the city's alcoholic beverage regulation agency, would cover the $3.2 million needed to replace the mayor's idea to let bars stay open until 3 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends.

The compromise also would render unnecessary a separate proposal to raise $20 million by increasing the excise tax on alcohol sales.

"We're trying to find a win-win situation," Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Brown floated the proposal on Wednesday during a wide-ranging discussion among council members on agencies' spending priorities for fiscal 2013. Members also debated plans to restore health care funding for immigrants who are not eligible for Medicaid and whether city officials are "gouging" residents with excessive fees for traffic violations.

Mr. Gray in March proposed a $9.4 billion budget for fiscal 2013 that relies on creative initiatives such as expanded alcohol sales and a sharp uptick in the number of traffic cameras to raise revenue in lieu of new taxes or fees.

The council is scheduled to issue its first vote on the budget Tuesday.

Mr. Brown's plan, which he circulated for the first time Wednesday during the council's work session, names New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day as the holiday weekends when bars can remain open until 4 a.m. Friday through Sunday. Some members noted that July 4 and New Year's Day will not fall on a weekend next year, and staff clarified that their projections account for only one day of extra sales on those days.

The mayor's spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, said "we are reviewing the chair's proposal and hope to work with him."

Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said the body should also consider a decrease in traffic-violation fees now that enforcement will be amped up, citing a $250 fine for violating a pedestrian's right of way in a crosswalk.

Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, said the law is unclear in certain situations, so the tickets make his constituents "really angry."

"I just think we ought to re-evaluate all these fees," Mr. Brown said, reiterating an oft-repeated fear that the District is gaining a reputation for runaway fines and fees.

Among other priorities, council member David A. Catania, at-large independent and chairman of the Committee on Health, outlined his plan to restore a $23 million cut in the mayor's plan to hospital care for members of the D.C. Healthcare Alliance, which primarily serves immigrants who are not eligible for Medicaid.

He outlined savings in various segments of the health care finance budget that would restore the funding, although Mr. Gray's administration has questioned whether the plan simply created budget holes in other areas.

Mr. Catania said his office is working with the mayor and the city's chief financial officer to further validate their calculations ahead of the council's first vote on the fiscal 2013 budget next week.

"I'm confident," he said, "we'll have a certified solution by Tuesday."

The council also debated the best way to maintain funding for the Housing Production Trust Fund, which sets money aside to create affordable housing units in the city.

Mr. Evans said the fund has been "raided" each year to fund the city's rent-supplement program.

"It's a charade," he said.

Council member Michael A. Brown, at-large independent, said on Tuesday he will reintroduce his plan to use funds from a pool of about $20 million in fiscal 2012 funds to compensate city workers for two of the four furlough days they took in 2011 — the two other days would be paid once revised revenue estimates arrive in June — and place the balance of the funds in the Housing Production Trust Fund.

Some council members object to the plan because they want to immediately compensate city workers for all four days.

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