Friday, February 15, 2008

Mayor Adrian Fenty is fine tuning his fiscal 2009 budget plan, and usually, the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) is available for all interested stakeholders to peruse. This year is different. The CAFR is the independent audit of D.C. records that looks at spending and revenues, as well as the city’s capacity to keep things in check. The lack of that critical information as the Fenty administration prepares a budget is offputting.

The mayor wants to spend new money on dozens of new educational programs, and City Hall is becoming increasingly determined to build sports facilities with public dollars while stakeholders question when real estate revenue will flatline. So, go figure. Add, for example, the “urgency” to spend tens of millions of dollars on upgrading school athletic programs to the tens of millions in mandatory school salaries and benefits, and we wonder whether anyone in City Hall can mouth the word “no.”

A look at a few misplaced priorities: The city will be saluting in April the opening of a new baseball stadium whose costs continue to rise; this week we learned that City Hall wants to finance a new soccer stadium (after handing over $50 million for a basketball and hockey arena); and there is rising interest in bringing the Washington Redskins home from Maryland (and Daniel Snyder isn’t going to entertain a move without D.C. picking up a considerable part of the tab). That’s just the pro sports angle.

D.C. health care costs are spinning out of control. It is an expenditure that began ballooning a full decade ago, first with unwieldy costs for a public hospital, and later when the council and then-Mayor Tony Williams tried to get a handle on costs during his two administrations but failed. A new mayor (Mr. Fenty) and new council (led by Chairman Vincent Gray) haven’t fared any better. And it doesn’t matter, whether the health care program involves school nurses, Medicaid for special education students, substance abuse, free health care, HIV/AIDS efforts, teen pregnancy or bailing out a troubled private hospital.

Moreover, even if the sports angle is removed from the spending debate, there are other flags that force our eyes to take note of the red ink. Consider two recent news stories. The first is a Feb. 8 article by Gary Emerling of The Washington Times that cited a report by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs ( The report characterized school sports facilities as in “terrible shape,” cited funding decreases, and then went on to say that school districts like Alexandria and Montgomery allocate more per-pupil dollars for athletic facilities than does the District. The message from the report, of course, is spend, spend, spend.

The second news story is from the Washington Examiner, which used a report it had obtained to make a startling point: “The D.C. government is likely paying millions of tax dollars to provide free health care to thousands of non-District residents who have managed to improperly enroll in the District’s medical safety net.” How did that happen and nobody noticed? “We continue to fix a bureaucracy that took on an innovative program that it didn’t have the infrastructure to manage,” Sharon Baskerville, the director of the D.C. Primary Care Association, told The Examiner. Small wonder the term “universal health care” scares so many taxpayers.

There are so many costs that are out of the city’s control in the short term, chiefly rising utility and fuel costs, and payroll expenditures. Considering all of the above, we expect City Hall to hold the line on spending and not toe the line to raise taxes. It’s a tall order.

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