Mayor Muriel Bowser’s $13.8 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 — the largest in the city’s history — drew its fair share of strong reactions on both ends of the spectrum when she unveiled it last Tuesday. But with a few days to process its contents, the overall tenor of feedback, in Northwest specifically, has been slightly more measured.
D.C. Council members in the city’s poorest wards, including Ward 8’s Trayon White and Ward 7’s Vincent Gray, offered strong rebukes at a testy forum last Thursday, suggesting that Bowser hasn’t followed through on promises to help the city’s disadvantaged populations. On the other hand, the representatives of the council’s four Northwest wards — Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau, Ward 2’s Jack Evans, Ward 3’s Mary Cheh and Ward 4’s Brandon Todd — have generally praised the mayor’s approach despite some concerns over details.
Details on some budget items continue to trickle in. For instance, the Office on Aging budget includes long-sought funding for a “virtual senior wellness center” service network that would cover wards 2 and 3, according to agency spokesperson Karen Dorbin. But the exact amount of funding and specific plans are still in the works, Dorbin said.
Meanwhile, $5 million for construction on the controversial pool portion of the Hearst Park renovation project in North Cleveland Park has been pushed back from 2019 to 2020.
“The funding was pushed back allowing for more collaborative and thoughtful planning and design of the pool with the community,” Department of Parks and Recreation spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump wrote in an email.
Looking at the budget more broadly, numerous progressive advocacy groups are urging the council to push for more funding for major initiatives like affordable housing and education. For her part, though, Bowser has deflected those criticisms in her subsequent public comments, including at a press briefing last Thursday.
“I’m just going to start this process off with the spirit that we have done everything that we thought was efficient and proper to reflect the council members’ priorities,” Bowser said. “There’s a lot done here that I expect there’s 99 percent agreement on.”
Some outside observers, though, have criticized the budget for extending an ongoing tax reform program that includes hefty tax cuts set to affect lower- and middle-class residents soon.
“Instead of devoting our money to housing, schools, and other services, the budget puts tax cuts first,” Ed Lazere, executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, wrote in a news release from numerous organizations criticizing the budget last week. “Mayor Bowser’s budget does not live up to her own goal of ‘inclusive prosperity’ — ensuring that all DC residents benefit from our growing economy — and we call on the Council to do more.”
But the council appears not to share those concerns: Bowser said last week that none of the 13 council members approached her publicly or privately to question her approach to tax reform.
“It makes our tax system fair,” Cheh told The Current. “It reforms it; it’s more progressive.”
Less unifying for the council is a 1.5 percent increase in per-pupil funding for D.C. Public Schools and public charter schools. Advocacy groups were calling for an increase above 2 percent and have argued that the smaller proposed increase falls short of meeting inflation. Cheh said she’s inclined to agree.
“Just throwing money at a problem doesn’t necessarily solve a problem,” she said. “On the other hand, it seems to me that we need to at least keep up with inflation.”
Evans sees it differently. He thinks advocates for a higher increase need to demonstrate that previous funding increases have shown concrete positive results.
“When the advocacy groups can start to prove to me that the money’s being spent wisely, I will be more accommodating to larger increases,” he said. “I want them to spend their time next year going forward from right now to find out what money is being spent.”
Nadeau and Todd were unavailable for interviews on the mayor’s proposals, though both released written statements on the budget.
In addition to the headline-generating issues, Cheh and Evans plan to follow up on smaller portions of the budget that they see as unsatisfactory. Evans said he’ll push for an additional $5 million for arts funding, currently at $20 million. Cheh, meanwhile, is incensed at what appears to be cuts to the Department of Public Works’ Office of Waste Diversion, which she helped create in 2015 to develop composting and recycling initiatives, as well as possible cuts to Department of Parks and Recreation programs for young children.
“The mayor was touting early childhood investments, and yet DPR’s early childhood programs are being cut with personnel,” Cheh said. “It looks like you’re giving with one hand and taking away with the other.”
Cheh is also frustrated that the mayor declined her request to expedite the modernization of Cleveland Park’s Eaton Elementary School from 2022 to 2019. She’s particularly concerned that a planned shelter for homeless families nearby will add more children to an overcrowded building. But Bowser held firm.
“We’ve made the decision to follow the prioritization of school modernizations that we’ve developed, and that the council has supported,” Bowser said at last week’s press briefing. “John Eaton has been in this capital plan, it receives planning dollars at the end of the [Capital Improvement Plan], and we expect as the CIPs advance, it will be fully funded.”
On the other hand, Nadeau was pleased to see $750,000 for the renovation of the field at the Park at LeDroit, as well as funding for a Main Street program on lower Georgia Avenue NW, according to her statement. Nadeau and Cheh both praised the mayor’s commitment to resolving the city’s pervasive road and alley issues.
In an email to constituents, Todd said he’s excited that modernizations of MacFarland Middle, Shepherd Elementary, and Coolidge Middle and High schools remain fully funded, and that a supermarket tax incentive will accommodate a new Harris Teeter at Georgia and Eastern avenues.
The council will review the budget throughout April and May, with final approval soon after.