Bowser touts equality, safety as vital to 2018 budget proposal

Mayor Muriel Bowser released her budget proposal on Tuesday. (Brian Kapur/Current file photo)

Last week, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s State of the District address focused on themes of reducing inequality and ramping up public safety. On Tuesday morning, she presented a $13.8 billion budget proposal that includes major allocations targeting those same areas, including affordable housing initiatives, police officer attraction and retention, early childhood care services, and improvements for public and charter schools.

Bowser’s third budget plan represents a 3.4 percent rise in overall spending compared to the current 2017 fiscal year, and the D.C. Council will spend the coming weeks modifying it in time for approval later this spring. Impressions were still trickling in as of The Current’s deadline Tuesday night, but some community members are already lauding proposals to fund local projects, while some progressive groups continue to call for further spending in some areas.

Major new investments in the mayor’s proposed budget include:
■ $10 million for affordable housing preservation, on top of an annual $100 million for the Housing Production Trust Fund, which funds projects that provide affordable housing units.
■ $15 million for expanding early childhood development centers, developing new centers and incentivizing the establishment of early childhood facilities in government-owned facilities, potentially including the University of the District of Columbia in Van Ness. Another $300,000 would go toward the creation of My Child Care DC, an online portal for early childhood facilities similar to My School DC, an existing website for D.C. schools.
■ $11.7 million for police recruitment and retention.
■ $4.9 million to hire 48 new rescue squad EMTs.
■ $1 million to establish a nurse triage unit in the 911 call center that would streamline the process for connecting callers to ambulances or non-emergency services.
Public and charter schools will receive an additional $105 million this year, accounting for enrollment increases and a per-pupil funding formula, a growth rate that critics note has slowed compared to recent years.

The budget also includes another $15 million toward Bowser’s Homeward DC initiative to make homelessness “rare, brief and non-recurring” in the District by 2020, and to end veteran homelessness sooner. Homeward DC — which includes the ongoing efforts to create seven new family homeless shelters — got roughly $2 million more funding in last year’s budget than this year, though City Administrator Rashad Young said Monday that this shouldn’t been seen as a reduction, since last year’s phase required more funding.

Another line item likely to attract attention is a $950,000 marketing campaign for the D.C. statehood initiative. Though a Republican-led Congress and federal executive branch renders the possibility of statehood unlikely in the short term, Bowser remained resolute in support of the movement Thursday night.

“We don’t want anything special,” Bowser said. “We just want full access to our birthright.”

Federal budget cuts could greatly impact the District, with President Donald Trump proposing to slash as much as $100 million from programs that directly impact D.C. residents. Young said that, if needed, the city would rely on leftover revenue from this year’s expenditures identified by the city’s chief financial officer as a “cushion.” That leftover funding could also go toward workforce development initiatives regardless of federal cuts, Young said.

Though the mayor’s message of “inclusive prosperity” has attracted support, the budget proposal has drawn early criticism from progressive groups who had hoped to see more substantial investments in affordable housing and education. A particular area of controversy lies in the mayor’s decision to retain previously approved widespread tax cuts.

During Thursday’s State of the District, five activists holding signs calling for affordable housing expansion briefly approached the stage, though police escorted them away and Bowser continued speaking uninterrupted.

The Bowser administration plans to formally present the budget proposal to the council and field questions on Thursday.

The mayor’s budget also includes funding for improving local facilities. Among its provisions is $11 million for a 2020 renovation of the recreation center at Stead Park at 1625 P St. NW — $2 million more than anticipated, according to Kishan Putta from the park’s friends group, which hopes construction can begin earlier than currently scheduled.

Other proposed funding includes $10 million for a new recreation center at the grounds of Shepherd Elementary School, 7800 14th St. NW, which would include a “gymnasium, fitness rooms, showers and restrooms, senior room and other recreational spaces”; $12 million to renovate the Upshur Recreation Center, 4300 13th St. NW; and $2 million to renovate the Petworth Recreation Center, 801 Taylor St. NW.

However, Eaton Elementary School’s much-delayed $30 million modernization is still proposed to begin in fiscal year 2022, with the bulk of funding slated for fiscal year 2023. Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh told The Current that she asked the mayor to move the start date up to 2019, but the mayor’s budget indicates she declined that request.

Meanwhile, Bowser’s proposed budget plans for a $50 million modernization at School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens — the bulk of which, $42 million, would come during the 2023 fiscal year. The current fiscal year budget for the 2401 N St. NW school includes $2.5 million for addressing existing maintenance and space issues in the building.