- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mayor Vincent C. Gray on Wednesday declared his commitment to reimbursing city workers who took four unpaid furlough days last year, a plan that has been complicated by slippery dollar amounts and diverging priorities among city lawmakers.

Mr. Gray said it was important to make city workers whole, conjuring the “excruciatingly painful” discussions during his time as council chairman that resulted in the decision to withhold city workers’ pay on four holidays in 2011. A significant windfall of city revenues at the end of the year, however, called the maneuver into question.

Mr. Gray said the city relied on fiscal information it had at the time, but workers constantly remind him of the seemingly unnecessary burden.

Several D.C. Council members spoke in support of the reimbursement from the dais during a council session on Tuesday. One legislator, Jack Evans, flat-out said at a council breakfast that he promised labor unions he would support the repayment.

Mr. Gray’s spokesman said the mayor is guided solely by principle and not outside influences, such as the politics of pleasing unions that supported his candidacy.

“The mayor made it clear this morning that he’s doing this because he feels it’s the right [thing] to do, especially given the surplus, not because of the unions or any other reason,” the spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, said.

But Mr. Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, said Tuesday he may have to rethink his commitment to the labor unions if the price tag is too high.

Initial calculations required about $19 million in local dollars, but the actual reimbursement could cost up to $25 million when accounting for payments from the federal government to certain employees. City officials said they likely will have to cover the federal portion with local dollars if they decide to repay the workers.

The total amount could come back down when the city subtracts the number of city workers who took furloughs but have left the government workforce. D.C. officials said they will only reimburse employees who are still on the city’s payroll.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown on Tuesday guided the council’s approval of $8 million in funding to the Unemployment Compensation Fund and $7 million to D.C. Public Charter Schools, while ignoring the rest of the priorities in Mr. Gray’s supplemental budget, including the furlough payment. Mr. Brown said it would have been irresponsible to approve the reimbursement without knowing the actual cost.

But it is the council’s responsibility “to come to us with a number that says, ‘This is what we want to pay,’ ” said David Umansky, a spokesman for D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, on Wednesday. “They’ve got to make some policy decisions.

Those decisions will be colored by various lawmakers’ priorities.

Council member Michael A. Brown, at-large independent, has expressed interest in reimbursing city workers for two of the furlough days and placing the balance of funds into the Housing Production Trust Fund. If possible, he would like to give city workers two personal days to use as they wish, for a total of four compensated days, even if only half of it is upfront in cash, according to his spokesman.

Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, has pushed for an injection of funds into the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

And Mr. Brown, the chairman, said Wednesday he would entertain a plan that reimburses two days and addresses affordable housing, TANF and tax relief for city residents.

Discussion on Tuesday also brought up the philosophical question of whether city workers should be paid, while private sector residents hit hard by the recession do not see direct benefits.

David A. Catania, at-large independent, has voiced his objection to reimbursing city workers. He has said there are wiser, forward-looking uses for the money, such as restoring a $23 million cut in the mayor’s fiscal 2013 budget plan to hospital care for members of the D.C. Healthcare Alliance public health insurance program.

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

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