- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

D.C. Council members yesterday criticized aspects of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s first budget proposal, saying parts of the plan could create significant spending problems in the city’s finances.

“To me, this is an unbalanced budget at this stage based on the information we have before us,” D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said during a public hearing on Mr. Fenty’s fiscal 2008 budget proposal.

The proposal is a $9.7 billion spending plan that includes more than $5 billion in local funds.

If approved by the council, it would put more police officers on city streets and it includes an increase in per-pupil funding of about $300 for students in public and public charter schools.

Mr. Fenty’s proposal also transfers local funding for the Office of Contracting and Procurement and the Department of Human Resources to intra-D.C. funding, essentially allowing city agencies to bill each other for procurement and personnel services instead of centralizing them through those offices. The mayor has said the structural change will promote greater transparency and accountability.

But the restructuring was questioned by some on the council because the mayor’s budget does not identify specific additional funds for the agencies to take on the added tasks.

Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, said the change could result in a roughly $30 million budget hole and also could place more city agencies at risk for corruption, she said.

“That is just ripe for abuse. I can just picture the headlines in the future,” Mrs. Schwartz said. “This is an area that could be very, very problematic.”

William Singer, Mr. Fenty’s chief of budget execution, said the administration would be working with city agencies within the existing budget to fund the new responsibilities.

“We think as a matter of execution the money is there to be found,” Mr. Singer said. “We think it’s achievable.”

Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said the mayor’s proposal “is the right way to go.”

Mr. Gray called Mr. Fenty’s proposal to change procurement and personnel practices a “major policy shift” and said the council would work with the mayor to correct imbalances if the budget is unbalanced.

But “to pass a budget like this inherently creates a deficit,” Mr. Gray said.

Mr. Fenty also has proposed increasing the District’s 911 phone call fee from 76 cents to $1.55.

The fee increase was sharply criticized by Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, as “unconscionable.” It was initially submitted to Mr. Fenty in a guiding, baseline budget prepared by the office of Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi. But Mr. Gandhi acknowledged yesterday that the increase is a “policy matter” and should not have been proposed by his office.

The oversight could lead to about $17 million that would need to be identified elsewhere in the budget if the new fee is not approved by the council, officials said.

“If the council were to say, ‘We are not going to approve these 911 fees,’ obviously we’re gong to have to find some other ways to balance this budget,” Mr. Gandhi said.

In a statement yesterday, Mr. Gandhi said Mr. Fenty’s budget is balanced, but that “the chairman and council members have asked the Mayor’s Office and the CFO to address funding issues that may be created if the council does not enact the mayor’s proposed policy initiatives, which rely on those resources.”

Despite the objections, council members also praised Mr. Fenty’s budget for considering citizen concerns and taking initiatives such as transferring school crossing guards from the police department to the Department of Transportation.

The budget also cuts the budget of the D.C. Public Schools System by about $12 million, or 1.5 percent, but projects a savings of more than $25 million based on a trend in declining student enrollment in the system.

“We’ll have less kids in the school system, but we’ll be [spending] more dollars for those students in fiscal 2008,” Mr. Fenty said.

The council is scheduled to hold numerous public hearings and markups on Mr. Fenty’s budget during the coming months.

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