- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2002

The D.C. Council has given a green light to Mayor Anthony A. Williams' proposal to increase the number of speed cameras in the city next year a move expected to give the city millions of additional dollars in revenues a year.
Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, who was been skeptical of the city's electronic law-enforcement programs, said the latest expansion is a clear indication that the city is starting to see the cameras as revenue sources.
"Indubitably, I think we're moving in the direction of using cameras to boost revenue," he said.
City officials, including the mayor, have repeatedly said that the cameras, first installed in 1999, are about making the city safer, not generating revenue.
The expanded camera program was part of the mayor's budget proposal submitted to the council this week. Mr. Williams has also called for higher income taxes, higher fees for the removal of graffiti, higher cigarette taxes and budget cuts in all city agencies to close a looming $323 million budget shortfall.
Nearly all of the mayor's proposals except for the income tax increase won the approval of the council.
The two sides agreed instead to increase taxes related to property sales deed recordation and transfers from 1.1 percent to 1.5 percent. Council members said that tax increase was more acceptable because it also will affect businesses and out-of-town owners who have received tax relief during the past few years. An income tax, however, would affect D.C. residents exclusively.
Mr. Williams was convinced that he would eventually win council approval of an income-tax increase.
"I favor the [income tax] increases, but they should not be in perpetuity," Mr. Williams said. "We are looking at a way to sunset the increases, whether it will be based on a time or economic factors."
But council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, at-large Democrat, said, "The council will not support an income tax increase. We have worked for a long time to lower taxes, and we don't want to start sliding backwards."
Mr. Williams' plan to expand automated traffic enforcement calls for five additional speed cameras, bringing the city's total to 10. The mayor also called for exercising the speed-camera function in the District's existing 39 red-light cameras. The initiative led some council members to conclude that the program was being motivated more by money than by safety.
Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, and Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, said they supported the enhanced enforcement, which is a popular safety measure in their wards.
After a four-hour meeting yesterday, the mayor and the council had not reached agreement, but Mr. Williams and Mrs. Cropp said they expect to finish the budget today. The council will hold hearings on the revised budget tomorrow. The new budget must be passed by Tuesday and sent to Congress, where it could face some hurdles.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, has been vehemently opposed to traffic cameras as a revenue generator, calling it an excessive tax.
Mr. Armey could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The council and the mayor have worked for two weeks to reach an agreement on where to make cuts in the budget.
Mrs. Cropp said that in the end "no one will say they are happy about everything in this budget."
Mrs. Patterson said she was concerned about a planned $3.7 million cut from the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services.
The cut, under a line item called "company consolidation," would mean that four downtown fire stations that house one crew to ride fire engines and another crew to ride either rescue squads or ladder trucks would lose one of their crews.
The remaining crew would operate whichever vehicle was necessary to respond to an emergency.
"There's no good way to do this," said Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Margret Kellems. Mrs. Kellems said emergency coverage would be adequate despite the cutbacks, which would "minimally" affect emergency-vehicle response times.
She said that if the department, which is scheduled to receive about $124 million in this year's budget, can find other ways to make the cuts, it would be unnecessary to pull the crews from the stations.
She also noted that while funding levels for fiscal 2003 are about $5 million more than for fiscal 2002, that is about half of what the department was promised earlier in the budget process. She said the cuts will be necessary largely because of the increased number of ambulances on the street and swelling overtime costs.
Ray Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association, called the consolidation plan "ridiculous," given that the city remains a terrorist target.
Mr. Fenty said he was displeased with cuts made to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and D.C. public schools.
"The trust fund will be cut to $5 million next year, only a quarter what it would be if it were fully funded," he said.
Mr. Fenty also said he did not support cutting the schools budget because school board officials have informed him that the money being cut already has been dedicated to services.
"The schools spent $761 million last year, and we are giving them $743 million this year. Granted, they overspent, but is it prudent when they can't afford the cuts?" Mr. Fenty said.
Members of the D.C. Board of Education expressed displeasure over the proposed budget cuts on Tuesday. Board president Peggy Cooper Cafritz said the cuts could result in the schools firing teachers and cutting programs.
The new budget plan will delay new spending by $98.9 million. City agencies are being asked to reduce their spending by $104.6 million.
Some council members wanted to tap the reserve fund to offset some expenses, but Mr. Williams said that is out of the question.
The reserves are congressionally mandated pursuant to the Appropriations Act, and the District would be required to repay those funds in 2004, which could put the city in dire straits if the money wasn't there, said Tony Bullock, Mr. Williams' spokesman.
At least one council member, Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, said the city isn't cutting enough.
"We are going to face the same thing next year in 2004 if we don't trim more, because I think revenues will fall as the economy continues to go through this slowdown," Mr. Evans said.


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