-This week the Council concluded the first, and most important, steps of approving a fiscal year 2011 budget, which will begin Oct. 1. I voted against the final plan as I believe we are relying on what are essentially a few too many “one time fixes” to balance our budget. I believe in some respects we have pushed the hard decisions to next year rather than take the more difficult, yet more thoughtful, route of rethinking the District government to realign our service needs with our actual resources. Underneath our considerations this year, I believe, is a fundamental structural problem which we have left unaddressed.
We have to live within our means. The District government does not have a printing press for money, and I think we ignore the very real downturn in our revenue — particularly in commercial property taxes — at our peril. So that leaves us with really only one choice — getting serious about reinventing government, reevaluating the efficiency and scope of the services we provide, and realigning the size of our government to be more in line with our actual resources.
What we have done instead is this — we are continuing to spend down our accumulated fund balances (savings account). As recently as Jan. 1, 2007, these fund balances stood at nearly $1.54 billion, and at the beginning of the current fiscal year last Oct. 1, they stood at $902 million. For a year or two it might make sense to spend some money from these accounts — tough times happen — and we’ve benefited immeasurably from federal stimulus funds as well. But now we’re going on spending down these balances for a third and fourth year. Hard decisions delayed, indeed.
Our revenue streams have not turned around and are unlikely to do so for some time. In fact, I believe it will take a few years for a full recovery. As part of his budget the Mayor proposed a number of revenue increases, chiefly fees for various services, and the Council adopted a number of those as well as imposed a new tax to pay for a brand new program. And there certainly were any number of Members and advocates calling for even more taxes in a number of areas. But the fundamental problem with that approach is this — unless you restrain the growth of the government it will continue to grow by another $2-300 million a year in baseline measures and annual spending pressures. I have seen this nearly every year I have served in the Council.
So the question then becomes — whose taxes do you raise the year after that, and then the year after that? What happens is you create a vicious cycle, much like that we had in the 80’s and 90’s, where you utterly discourage people from moving in to DC and you inspire current residents and businesses to flee. Over the past few decades the District lost hundreds of thousands of residents and the surrounding jurisdictions have shown that our region is indeed a desirable one. It’s only in the past decade we’ve begun to turn that around — by lowering certain taxes, by attracting new residents, by improving city services, and by making DC an attractive place to live and work again.
I refuse to be a part of turning our backs on that kind of progress and reversing the gains we have made. I refuse to be a part of playing “gotcha” with our residents and businesses and hiking up the cost of everything once people are here. We ought not to treat our residents and businesses as wallets simply to be picked at random. I advocate for the more challenging task of re-engineering our government to make efficiencies happen and deliver the same or greater services with the resources we already have.