- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2011

City Hall has a plan: Plug D.C. residents into jobs and careers that will be provided by major economic development projects, and money will again begin to flow into the city’s shallow coffers.

That’s the pitch to broaden the city’s tax base, a proposal they hope will pay off in the short- and long-run.

The theme was a recurring one in recent days as leaders position themselves for Monday evening’s school budget hearing, Mayor Vincent C. Gray preps for his first major speech following his inauguration. and lawmakers gear up for their deliberations on his spending plan.

Council member Harry Thomas Jr. sounded the issue at an economic development expo Saturday, where he told attendees the city is “bleeding” revenue. Mr. Gray, who spoke at the event, said the city’s “biggest investment” will be education and “getting our people back to work.” And council member Marion Barry on Thursday night called the push “liberation and transformation.”

The quest for more money stems from substantial declines in collections from income, sales and property taxes. Collections from the new bag tax also saw a steep drop, from a record high of $249,000 in October to only $177,000 in January.

In various settings, officials have also cited potential funding losses to the Obama administration, which has proposed cutting spending on community development block grants, and Congress, where lawmakers are considering trimming back federal spending on mass transit and human services.

But while the mayor and other officials continue to hammer home the fact that 70 percent of the people who work in the city don’t live here and the city cannot levy a commuter tax, they also said that education and job creation tied to a widening pipeline of economic development will bring homegrown revenue.

Pointing out that $5 billion in projects are coming to Ward 5, Mr. Thomas, chairman of the council’s economic development panel, also said the city is losing $45 million to $49 million alone to Wal-Mart stores in nearby Maryland and Virginia.

All told, “the District bleeds almost $1 billion in retail spending to surrounding jurisdictions,” he said at the expo, which was held at Gallaudet University. “We have the opportunity to ensure our residents get those job and career opportunities.”

There’s no shortage of large-scale projects in the scenario being pitched. Costco and the Shops at Dakota Crossing, a Wal-Mart on New York Avenue and Rhode Island Station, are in the works in Ward 5. Three additional Wal-Mart stores are on the drawing board for other areas of the city. There also is a $1.5 billion wharf renovation project for the Southwest Waterfront, and there are initiatives for the Army’s Walter Reed base in Northwest and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s headquarters in Southeast.

D.C. officials are also complaining that too many residents are ill-prepared academically and skill-wise to compete for those and other jobs. The linchpin to brightening their employment prospects and the city’s fiscal picture is education, the mayor said.

“By focusing on education and focusing on economic development, we can get our people back to work,” the mayor said in his remarks at the expo.

In an interview afterward, he said, “Our residents aren’t working not because they don’t want to work but because many of them don’t have skilled and academic backgrounds. That’s what our industries — hospitality, education, service, construction — need. That’s what they want.

“I’m focusing on education, not only on elementary and secondary education but at community college — to change outcomes,” said the mayor, who will deliver his State of the District address March 28.

Meanwhile, Mr. Barry, whose predominantly black Ward 8 has had jobless rates topping 25 percent in several years, cited the school system as a long-standing hindrance to residents’ employability.

Urging attendees at his Thursday night State of the Ward address to join the “liberation and transformation movement,” Mr. Barry said his constituents need to be liberated “from a failing school system that does not prepare most of our students to be ready for careers or ready for college” and transformed “into a school system that those of us who need the most ought to get the most — more money, more supportive services, more everything.”

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