Celebrating Spending in DC

May 27, 2017

The District of Columbia’s pending 2018 budget stands in stark contrast to the one submitted to Congress by President Donald Trump and his administration. Where the man who professes to be a populist executive has proposed a spending plan that threatens to squeeze the poor, the working- and middle class, DC officials are falling all over themselves searching for more money for that same population.


“At some point, somewhere, someone has got to say hold on,” said Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans who also is chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue.


Evans is the leader of the fast-fading group of fiscal realists in the legislature. Each budget season, he attempts to splash cold water on the spendthrifts around him. This year was no different: The District’s debt service is ‘the highest per capita of any city, state or county in America,” he reminded his colleagues. DC’s debt service is also “the fourth largest item in our budget.”


The city’s Fiscal 2018 budget as proposed by the council is $13.8 billion; $7.6 billion of those funds come from local taxes and fees.   


Flush with cash for several years, the government has spent increasingly larger sums of money and has become even more bloated.  That has been accompanied by scant accountability and serious, unabated mismanagement.


Take for example, the point made by Council member Charles Allen during the legislature’s budget meeting on Thursday May 25 about money appropriated each year to public schools that is supposed to be spent only for at-risk students, with the aim of improving their academic performance.  “The council warned at risk dollars was not to be used to supplant existing spending,” said the Ward 6 representative.  Nevertheless school officials have used that at-risk money to cover everything including coaches.


It’s not as if that is news. At-large Council member David Grosso, head of the Committee on Education, admitted that “only 40 percent” of the at-risk supplemental funding is actually “being used for at-risk students.”


Nevertheless, Grosso didn’t appear bothered by that misuse of funds. He told his colleagues that he would be “waiting to see” how the new chancellor handles the DCPS budget.


Grosso has oversight of education; he just held budget hearing where leaders of DCPS appeared before him. And, all he could say is that he is “waiting.” Help us.


Not to put too fine a point on the government’s mismanagement of public monies, consider that in March Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration borrowed $27 million from the city’s contingency fund to cover expenses it should have been able to anticipate: teacher salaries.


Between January and the end of March 2017, Bowser borrowed $286.8 million--$157.6 million from the city’s Contingency Reserve and another $129.2 million from its Emergency Fund Reserve—according to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer. While that money likely will be repaid, it is yet another indication of the waste and abuse of taxpayers’ money occurring in the government.


Don’t expect much to change in 2018, however. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said he was searching for money to increase per pupil allotments for public school students from 2.3 percent to 3 percent. That hunt began after education advocates and parents went on the war-path over the mayor’s proposed increase of only 1.5 percent over the 2017 per student allocation. Feeling the heat, Bowser subsequently sent word to the council she’d increase it to 2.3 percent. Now not to be undone, Mendelson has said the amount should be higher. Oh, Vincent C. Gray has continued to argue it should be 4 percent. (Did TBR forget to mention election season is approaching?)


The 2.3 percent increase would place the budget for public education—DCPS and charters—over the one billion dollar mark. Does it matter?


Answer this question and you will know: What percentage of the city’s public school students, including those in charters, met or exceeded academic expectations on standardize tests in 2016? Only 25.5 percent of those in grades 3 through 8 taking the English Language test achieved those higher ratings; only 23.9 percent of those in the same grade level taking the math assessment met or exceeded expectations. Charters weren’t any better.


 “We’re still struggling; we’re still not educating our children,” Evans said earlier this month. “If we spent another billion [dollars] or two billion on schools we still would not be getting the results we want.”


And that’s a fact. “We tend to celebrate the spending of the money—not the goals,” added Evans.


Actually, few in the government seem to care about performance or establishing minimum goals for the billions of tax dollars being spent.


At-large Council member Anita Bonds during the recent budget session attempted to persuade her colleagues that money sitting in the coffers of the Department of Housing and Community Development to establish a rent control housing clearinghouse should be transferred in 2018 to the Office of the Tenant Advocate. “DHCD is not able to get it done,” she said candidly.


 Mendelson countered that he had been told the agency had put out a request for proposal for a contractor to do the work. Bonds said in speaking with managers that day there was every indication no such RFP had actually been released.


The DHCD is a failing agency. Most would dismiss that statement as hyperbole. But the facts speak for themselves. The city auditor found that DHCD has done a poor job managing the Housing Production Trust Fund. The agency was forced to return nearly $16 million to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, “in the past three years after missing spending deadlines,” according to a recent Washington Post investigative report. And despite a major housing crisis in the city, the DHCD had yet to issue regulations associated with a decades-old law passed by the council that would permit the government to purchase vacant or abandoned properties and convert them into affordable housing.  

Truth be told, the council doesn’t want to withhold money from any agency, fearing a backlash from special interests groups and other favored constituents. So when a committee finds savings in the budgets of agencies under its purview, it doesn’t recommend a budget reduction. It sends those savings to other committees for them to spend the funds on, you guessed it, favored programs and special interests groups or to finance programs in a particular council member’s ward.


Meanwhile, social service advocates and council members like Grosso can’t see the bad budgeting and poor oversight occurring before their eyes. They are fixated on sticking it to the “wealthy in the District.” They have urged against approving cuts in the Estate Tax and the Business Franchise Tax. “The wealthy should not benefit while our education system, social services and humanities communities suffer,” said Grosso.


Currently, education, human services and public safety are the top spending items in the budget followed by debt service from borrowing.  Grosso and others won’t advocate streamlining or more cost-efficient budgeting. Instead, they would rather pimp upper income residents, dismissing the financial contributions the so-called wealthy make to the social programs advocates seek to fatten. 


Upper income residents and citizens who care about good, efficient government should put an end to their abuse. They should demand officials jettison antiquated program models, institute greater innovation that would both save money and improve services, and advocate more consistently aggressive oversight from legislators like Grosso to ensure taxpayers get the maximum bang for the billions of bucks they fork over each year.



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