- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A unanimous D.C. Council gave preliminary approval Tuesday to the District’s $14.4 billion budget for fiscal 2019, which calls for higher taxes on some property and ride-hailing services, among other items.

But one of the budget’s most remarkable features is its outlay for Metro — $178 million in dedicated funding for the 42-year-old regional transit agency.

Metro, which is receiving similar funding from Virginia and Maryland, already has announced plans to use its first $500 million-a-year allotment to rebuild crumbling train station platforms beginning next summer.

“This budget will remembered for Metro,” said councilmember Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and Metro Board chairman.

The 13-member council approved funding Metro by raising the tax on ride-hailing services Lyft and Uber from 1 percent to 6 percent, as well increasing the sales tax, the car rental and leasing tax, the hotel sales tax, and the tax on alcohol sold in liquor stores. Owners of properties assessed at more than $5 million will pay an increased 24 cents per $100 of value.

Councilmember Brandon Todd, Ward 4 Democrat, disagreed with his colleagues’ decision to increase the ride-hailing tax six-fold, saying it would apply to individuals as well as the companies.

His comments echoed those of Mayor Muriel Bowser, who had proposed only a four-fold increase on the tax when she submitted the budget to the council in March. But the legislative panel rejected her more modest proposal, as well as her plan to increase the bar and restaurant tax to fund Metro.

The proposed 2019 budget would provide $15.6 million for housing programs, with a focus on rental subsidies to help elderly residents “age in place.”

Councilmember Anita Bonds, at-large Democrat and chair of the Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization Committee, helped draft many of the housing line items in the budget.

“Doing all we can with every dollars that we can find is very, very rewarding to those of us who are very concerned and work on these issues every day,” Ms. Bonds said Tuesday.

Doubling the cigarette tax in a bid to reduce smoking was approved as an amendment introduced by councilmember Vincent Gray, Ward 7 Democrat, whose proposed bill on the matter failed to pass in a vote last month.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, opposed the amendment, saying it is a “punitive approach” to solve the problem and likely would drive customers to Maryland or Virginia, where cigarette prices would be half as high as the District’s. Mr. Evans joined him in opposing the amendment, citing a burden to D.C. convenience stores due to falling revenues.

“We’re just not ready at this point to do it,” said Mr. Evans, who chairs the Finance Committee.

Before the council could vote on the budget Tuesday afternoon, the meeting was interrupted by four clergymen, all members of the Poor People’s Campaign, which advocates for moral leadership to end poverty and injustice.

They called for “relief” from the high water taxes that churches and residents feel burdened by, over the chairman’s calls for order. As security approached, they began to sing and pray in front of the dais.

Mr. Mendelson ushered the group into a side room with councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat, and Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, where they held a private meeting for 45 minutes.

When they emerged, the Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, pastor of the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast, told reporters the meeting was “productive,” and his group moved to the mayor’s office, where they unsuccessfully attempted to demand a hearing.

The 2008 Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge is a tax on hard surfaces like pavement that do not absorb water and allow it to flow into storm drains.

The tax pays for the city’s public works program to redirect wastewater out of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, per federal regulations.

Mr. Mendelson reconvened the meeting, calling the interruption “inappropriate” but promising that the council would make addressing the high fees a “front-burner issue.”

The 2019 budget provides $12 million in subsidies for the tax, but the clergy said $40 million is necessary.

The council will reconvene in June after making minor adjustments to the budget for a second, final vote before passing the document back to the mayor.

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