- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2001

When Andrew Brimmer's control board first began poring over the city's financial books in 1995, its members were warned to believe half of what they saw and none of what they heard. The Brimmer board took heed. When Alice Rivlin's control board stepped in in 1999, she and her colleagues heard the same warning. Unfortunately, the Rivlin board bent over backwards to believe elected officials. Now, at a critical juncture, it is necessary to sound warning bells because the city seems to be up to its old overspending tricks again.
Just as Congress deliberates the city's fiscal 2002 budget and just as the control board prepares to step aside, city officials discover an $80 million deficit in the school system's $832 million operating budget and everybody's playing the I-didn't-know game. Chief Financial Officer Nat Gandhi said his minions didn't inform him, and the school system's chief budget cooks, Superintendent Paul Vance and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, said they were uninformed as well. Interestingly, though, officials made up much of the shortfall before the unsettling news broke. And this same trio told us they are now in scrimp-and-save mode.
Regardless, the questions remain. How could this happen? Is the school system on automatic-spending pilot? Are there two sets of books? What happened to the checks and no-pun-intended balances that are the responsibility of Mayor Williams and the D.C. Council? And where in the world was Mrs. Rivlin, who promised that "we will continue to be here to help" after the District received its clean audit earlier this year? Moreover, is the District really prepared to stand on its own two feet, as far as fiscal and management affairs are concerned?
Indeed, Mrs. Rivlin's board and the city leadership have been trying to reassure Congress and the public that the District is ready. Rep. Connie Morella, Republican chair of the House Government Reform Committee's panel on D.C. affairs, however, has been pondering another oversight authority for the District. Again, this is because the federal legislation that established the much-needed control board in 1995 mandates that the board dissolve after the District wipes out its deficits and has four consecutive balanced budgets. Technically, only an unqualified Comprehensive Annual Financial Report can satisfy those mandates. As timing would have it, the FY 2001 report isn't due until February 2002. By then, the control board will no longer be in control, the mayor, the council and the school board will be in the midst of their respective re-election bids, and the city just might be on the verge of another fiscal crisis.
It seems Mrs. Rivlin has a couple of options. She can continue to pretend ignorance and let the facts about the District's cooked books come out in February. Or Mrs. Rivlin can hold serious public deliberations to get to the bottom of this unchecked spending before this fiscal year ends Sept. 30. After all, this is the second time during her watch that the school system has overspent its budget. In other words, the District's home-rule standing is on shaky ground as well.


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