- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2012

D.C. Council members on Tuesday worried that friction with Mayor Vincent C. Gray is “escalating dramatically” because of contentious mid-year spending plans that are causing heartburn around city hall.

Lawmakers have sparred with Mr. Gray over his supplemental budget proposal, which is meant to tackle funding needs that arise during the fiscal year from unforeseen circumstances or agency overspending.

The city’s elected officials are divided over questions that include how to fund the city’s priorities without wasting money, whether furloughed city employees should be reimbursed and if it is wise to pass spending plans partway through the year.

Ultimately, the council agreed on Tuesday to act on two appropriations within Mr. Gray’s plan - $7 million for the D.C. Public Charter Schools and $8 million for the Unemployment Compensation Fund.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown said the items represented the most urgent needs, although the mayor’s spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, argued the council was “kicking the can down the road” on other priorities.

Mr. Brown responded by saying Mr. Ribeiro was “clueless” on the issue, although moments later he told reporters he does not see the budget disagreements as part of a major rift with Mr. Gray. His spokeswoman later said the chairman “meant no harm” by his initial comment.

For now, the city’s supplemental budget for fiscal year 2012 leaves out a controversial initiative to reimburse city employees for unpaid furloughs they took last year, although some council members promised labor unions they would make it happen in light of higher-than-expected revenues at the end of last year.

Mr. Brown said the reimbursement could cost more than $25 million, prompting council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, to say the price tag could “temper [his] interest in doing that.”

Mr. Brown said he wants to see an official proposal from the mayor that outlines how much money is available to repay city workers. Depending on the amount, the city might be able to form a package that repays city workers for two days, provides some tax relief for residents and funds affordable housing and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

But the most bizarre developments in the council’s daylong stab at the mayor’s budgetary wishes began over orange juice and Danish at the council’s breakfast - after city denizens stepped outside to watch the Space Shuttle Discovery fly overhead atop a 747.

Council Secretary Nyasha Smith said the mayor’s office had not officially transmitted a supplemental budget bill to the council, despite Mr. Gray’s position letter which indicates a plan was conveyed on March 29.

Mr. Brown said the council on that date only received a list of recommendations. He also insisted the council has been a responsible party in the talks by finding additional savings for the city and meeting with the mayor during the spring recess.

Mr. Ribeiro later contended the mayor sent a bill to the council in January and members were free to amend it as they please based on the mayor’s recommendation two months later.

But council members were taken aback when a member of the mayor’s staff walked into the breakfast with the mayor’s position letter clipped to a new version of the spending bill they had been discussing, mere moments before the legislators were supposed to take the dais and cast votes.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” council member David A. Catania, at-large independent who has served on the body since the late 1990s, said of the late arrival.

More importantly, at least in a political sense, Mr. Evans asked his colleagues what kind of signal they want to send to the mayor’s team as they address the supplemental plan and simultaneously debate a bill that requires the mayor to report the reprogramming of capital funds, even in small amounts, to the council.

“We’re at a point where we’re about to go into a public conflict together,” said council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat.

Mr. Evans jokingly referred to council members Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, and Michael A. Brown, at-large Democrat, as Mr. Gray’s “friends,” insinuating they must know “what’s happening” in his mind.

Council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, said he is a supporter of Mr. Gray, but he seems to be relying too much on his budget director.

“Rasputin did it!” Mr. Catania quipped.

Mr. Catania seemed fine with a little friction, noting “constructive tension” could benefit a mayor-council relationship that is “too cozy anyway.”

And council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, wondered why the body was prolonging discussion over supplemental budgets in general by acting on this one at all.

“I don’t know why this dead horse isn’t dead,” Mr. Mendelson said of the practice, in which new spending plans come forward partway through the year and which some council members have frowned upon. “Let’s move on.”

Potential friction with the mayor could have been exacerbated by emergency legislation put forth by Mr. Brown, which requires the mayor to notify council members of any capital budget reprogramming requests of less than $500,000 so they are aware of any funding they lose from projects in their wards.

The mayor’s position letter said the mayor “strongly opposed” the move because it could delay “the timely implementation of projects.”

Mr. Wells warned that the council was making an “offensive act” and it may be prudent to take a step back on the action.

Ultimately, Mr. Brown withdrew the proposal on the dais. He told reporters the bill could have passed, but it had been circulated recently and members needed more time to mull over its implications.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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