- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 13, 2000

The D.C. government has a well-worn reputation for wasting taxpayer dollars, and taxpayers expected much of that waste to dissipate once Marion Barry was out of the picture. Sorry to report, the waste continues unabated and so does the finger-pointing.

The Washington Times published several articles this week that prove, despite oversight by the D.C. Council, the city still wastes tens of millions of dollars each year on vacant and blighted properties. Last summer, Congress pointed out the tally stood at 170 empty or underutilized properties. The more recent count by the D.C. government is lower, 82, but the crux of the matter remains the same: poor land-use decisions and a council that shirked its legislative responsibilities. Whatever the number, and wherever the properties, the facts are startling:

n The District pays for 82 properties whose leases have expired, including seven which lapsed in the 1980s.

n Nearly a half-million dollars is wasted each and every month on leased properties that are either vacant or underutilized.

n Overall, the city spends $5.3 million in rent each month on various properties, including one at 14th and Girards streets N.W. that was ravaged by a fire. The monthly rent is $24,611.

n One prominent property owner told The Times that regardless of whether the office building in Southeast the city leases from him is 20 percent occupied or 90 percent occupied, "they pay me." And so it goes.

There are no excuses, although council members want you to believe otherwise. Of course they all unfairly blame the city's chief executive. On the constructive side, Council member Carol Schwartz told The Times this week that the council is working on legislation to govern the leasing and disposition of property. Beyond that is political-finger pointing. "That (legislation) should take care of problems like this," she said. "I hope the executive branch will get its act together and weed out these costly leases and make the process more efficient."

Interestingly enough, the council has been there and said that before. Listen to three of Mrs. Schwartz's colleagues, who chair the three panels most involved in land-use oversight and contracts. Their comments were made last summer, when Congress proposed granting considerable land-use authority to the mayor:

n Charlene Drew Jarvis, chairman of the Committee on Economic Development: "I view that (congressional proposal) as fairly alarming, since there are several large properties whose use ought to be collaboratively determined by the council."

n Kathy Patterson, chairman of the Committee on Government Operations: "We are mostly out of our bad month-to-month leases."

n Jack Evans, chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue: "Under prior mayors, it was essential" for the council to approve land deals. "There were always questions about deals being done."

Well, folks, there you have it: Years of mismanagement by the executive branch and years of neglectful oversight by the council; a council that, despite congressional oversight, approves leases or contracts that are not in the best interests of the public; a lawmaker who said just six short months ago that the "bad month-to-month leases" are no longer a huge problem; and senior lawmakers including Mr. Evans, Mrs. Jarvis, Mrs. Patterson, Mrs. Schwartz and Council Chairman Linda Cropp who have been around long enough to know that wasteful spending and scant oversight are the root of the District's fiscal woes.

Even with Mr. Barry now just a private citizen, waste and fraud continue. Some folks are calling for an investigation by Charles Maddox, the District's inspector general. That may be what is needed. The fact is, though, that not one council member can honestly say they did not contribute to this longstanding problem.

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