SOME people have become accustomed to vote trading in national and local politics. There is the belief that such transactions lead to securing compromises on critical issues.
But do they? And should that behavior extend to unrestricted and self-serving use of taxpayers’ money?
After reviewing the recommended draft changes made by several DC Council committees to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s $19.7 billion Fiscal Year 2024 Budget and Financial Plan, I am persuaded that some legislators would offer a full-throated affirmative response to those questions.
In my view, council members have treated the public’s money as if they were playing a game of Monopoly, acquiring programs and benefits to elevate their stature and satisfy their political base. Their behaviors contradict their assertion, repeated ad nauseam, that “This is a tough budget.”
They may be of that opinion because they have been denied more opportunities to pass around taxpayers’ hard-earned money for things like new recreation projects, Circulator buses, author and musician appearances, and favored nonprofit organizations with governing boards that include wealthy corporate executives capable of raising private funds to support operating costs.
I reached out twice via email to Council Chair Phil Mendelson, hoping to discuss all of this with him. He didn’t respond. His communications director, Lindsey Walton, told me in an email that the chairman was in “back-to-back meetings” Tuesday and could not respond by my deadline. I told her I would be willing to take a written response or statement. None came.
There is ample reason for residents to be concerned about wasteful spending and poor fiscal decisions, especially when those actions can result in tangible benefits for lawmakers. For example, Bowser decided to cut three of the six Circulator routes; that was supposed to save $10.5 million.
However, the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, chaired by Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen, voted to restore $3.5 million in one-time spending in fiscal year 2024. That money is for the Circulator route that travels between Eastern Market and L’Enfant Plaza, both of which are in his ward.
Oddly, this occurred even as Allen removed money for the Benning Road reconstruction and streetcar extension project in Ward 7. He didn’t take money away for one year. He stripped funding for four years.
Coming from New Orleans where there are actual streetcars, I have never been a fan of DC’s version of one. However, Allen’s actions raise questions about how decisions are made and who gets the short shrift.
For Allen, the bennies mostly went to him and his constituents. His committee made multiple recommendations to transfer money intended in the mayor’s budget to finance the operations and/or capital projects of agencies under its purview. Most notably, $10 million went to the Committee on Recreation, Libraries and Youth Affairs to construct a community and senior center at the popular Rumsey Aquatic Center, which is also in Ward 6.
He also sent $75,000 to the recreation committee for “behavioral health and substance abuse outreach at Eastern Market Metro Park.” Another $100,000 was transferred to that committee by Allen to study the feasibility of building “a new recreation center on Capitol Hill,” according to the draft report for the transportation committee.
Even as Allen was swapping out money that should have gone to transportation or environmental agencies and programs, he seemed to decry a potential for insufficient funding for the Sustainable Energy Trust Fund (SETF) — although officials at the Department of Energy & Environment have asserted that they have enough money for FY 2023 and FY 2024.
Still, in search of a nonexistent problem, Allen has proposed levying a fee on middle- and upper-income households that would essentially increase their utility bill by more than $31 each month on average; by 2027, that increase could rise to $46.
To justify that fee hike, the committee made an elaborate argument about how low-income families currently being served could be at risk if there were a drop in revenues for the Sustainable Energy Utility. It also discussed at length various workforce development initiatives that could be in jeopardy if the SETF runs short.
All of that seems to be a ruse, misdirecting attention from the transfers of funds from the committee that could, in fact, be used to finance the SETF or other important transportation and environment projects.
Bowser objected to that proposal, among others, in a May 3 letter to the council. It’s not clear whether Mendelson will include it in his final budget recommendations to his colleagues, which he is expected to present for a vote on May 16.
Allen may be one of the worst perpetrators of the taxpayer-money-as-Monopoly game — though neither he nor his supporters likely share my assessment. Am I the only person who finds the notion of using $500,000 for a rebate program for the purchase of electric bicycles an egregious offense when there are human services or education programs without sufficient funding?
I reached out to Allen twice via email for a comment; he did not respond.
Other council members are also guilty of playing fast and loose with public money. Ward 2 Council member Brooke Pinto, chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, transferred $251,750 for four “clean teams” in her ward; another $130,000 for a clean team in Chinatown; $100,000 for a recording studio at the Kennedy Recreation Center; and $250,000 for the “design [and] planning” of a new C&O Canal Educational and Cultural Center. Do I need to say the sites for these capital projects are all in Ward 2?
Pinto also sent $797,955 to the Committee on Facilities and Family Services that would be routed to the Office of the Attorney General for a new Family Services Section chief — as if the OAG operation wasn’t sufficiently fattened under former AG Karl Racine.
The Committee on Health, chaired by at-large Council member Christina Henderson, provided $100,000 to the recreation committee for Horton’s Kids through the Department of Parks and Recreation. While that nonprofit may be doing outstanding work, should the legislature approve this kind of sole-source contribution?
Interestingly, on a couple of occasions, Racine used settlement money from lawsuits to make donations to Horton’s Kids, without the benefit of any competitive grant-making process. Given its high-powered board of directors, isn’t Horton’s Kids capable of securing private-sector contributions?
Henderson’s committee further recommended sending $433,410 to the recreation committee so that the DC Public Library can continue to feature authors, musicians, exhibitions and other cultural events at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown.
Over the past several months, I have learned about the depth of health care problems experienced by DC residents. Additional funding could be used to address those issues.
Yes, I know that transferring funds between council committees isn’t a new practice. Further, some may think the amount of money involved is meager given that the city has a nearly $20 billion budget.
Nonetheless, it seems reckless and wasteful to me. It’s not hyperbole to assert that DC is facing serious fiscal challenges.
If a committee has determined that agencies under its purview don’t need all the funds budgeted, there must be a better way to allocate the so-called excess. It would help if the entire council had stated its public policy priorities, using those to guide its fiscal decisions. If there is a whole vision for the whole city developed by the whole council, I haven’t seen it or heard it articulated.
So, in lieu of that, council members seem quite satisfied with their haphazard approach to spending taxpayers’ money. Apparently, legislators are primarily concerned with serving their own political interests and having a banner they can wave during the next campaign — claiming, in many cases, to have provided a safety net for the city’s vulnerable residents.
That, of course, is first-class propaganda.
This article was previously published on DCLine.org