Body & Soul
Not on a Whim, Woman Catholic Priest Celebrates Momentous Georgetown Mass
Editorials and Opinions
The Fenty Write-in: A Democratic Success Story
John Hlinko • November 29, 2010
-This letter is in response to Gary Tischler’s editorial of November 3rd, “Congrats to Gray: Election Day and Beyond.” As a Georgetowner myself, and as the founder of the Facebook page Mr. Tischler referenced, “Run, Fenty, Run”, which helped jumpstart the write-in campaign, I thought it would make sense to address some of the points Mr. Tischler made regarding that effort.
Overall, there are a lot of good points made in the piece, and we too have joined in congratulating Mayor-Elect Gray on his November 2nd victory. We’ve posted it right on the page, and even offered Gray use of the page to reach our supporters.
My only quarrel with Mr. Tischler’s piece was with the section apparently ghost-written by George Orwell:
“It is a peculiarly undemocratic approach that says: We won’t accept the election results that we don’t like and we’re going to try and change them.”
It’s hard to know where to begin with this sentence. First, when this was written (as Mr. Tischler notes), the election for mayor hadn’t actually happened yet. The September election was a primary to choose party nominees. The November 2nd election was when the mayor was chosen. That’s why they called it an “election.” Call me old fashioned, call me sentimental, but I kind of like the quirky American tradition of waiting for the actual vote before declaring a winner.
The truly confusing part, however, is the claim that this effort was somehow “undemocratic.” Which part was undemocratic? The part where we tried to get more votes in the actual election? The part where we tried to run a campaign for our preferred choice for mayor? The part where volunteers stood out for 10, 12, 14 hours or more, trying to convince other voters to consider writing him in as well?
Now, in fairness, I was out of town for a few days, so I apologize if I missed the part where write-in supporters rolled out the tanks and declared a coup. And if they made Fenty “Generalissimo for life” in my absence, well, my bad.
But otherwise, it’s hard to see how this was anything but profoundly democratic. A group of grassroots supporters rallied behind their preferred candidate, and, with almost no budget, miraculously convinced
23% of voters to write in the name of that candidate. No, Fenty wasn’t on the ballot, and wasn’t running. But that’s the whole point of having a write in. If a voter thinks the best choice for that office is not on the ballot, he or she writes in the person they think is best, even if that person would need to be “drafted” to accept the office. The vast majority of people written in on Election Day are in fact not running.
Was it a long shot? Absolutely. Was it a pain in the neck for Mayor-elect Gray, and even Mayor Fenty himself? Almost certainly. Was it undemocratic? Well, since when is democracy “undemocratic?”
Seven Election Losses
Veena Trehan • November 17, 2010
-“Save Your Pennies.” Families save for big purchases or tough times. States similarly create “rainy day funds,” and the federal government spent less in prosperous times and more in difficult ones (per Keynesian theory). The New Deal, with its creation of jobs in the Great Depression to rebuild and restore America’s infrastructure, typified this approach.
President Bush came to D.C. with projections of a federal government surplus but eliminated it by cutting taxes and starting two wars. With 20 percent of citizens un- or underemployed, now would be the perfect time to use savings. Its absence allows Republicans to create an issue of debt reduction rather than recognizing the cyclical nature of our economy.
“Make Good Choices.” Brutal war actions like drone attacks, nighttime raids and random civilian killings led Afghani and Iraqi leaders to ask America to shrink its presence overseas. For Democrats, America’s continued involvement is a regular sucker punch. President Obama’s lack of haste in exiting the wars dampened the enthusiasm of these ardent supporters, whose energetic canvassing led to 2008’s record voter turnout.
“How Did You Do?” Government agencies and businesses have their own report cards, measures and plans. But somehow this seems to break down for our country as a whole.
American’s lives are affected by unemployment, excessive bank fees, growing difficulty in paying mortgages, health care expenses and coverage surprises. These were tackled through major legislative initiatives, though it’s generally agreed all areas need more work.
Many candidates ran on shrinking government and repealing health care. But these steps won’t improve most daily realities. In fact less protection through less regulation, less help to the states, and lower budgets will make things much worse for most middle-class Americans.
“Let’s Ask the …” We seek help for kids from doctors or coaches, and for ourselves from plumbers or attorneys. There is a great deal of expertise and consensus among researchers and economists. As an example: most economists say extending the tax cuts are a relatively ineffective way to create jobs, with tax cuts for the rich being far worse. Experts also recommend short-term government investment to create jobs, and investments in renewable energy and infrastructure. But candidates relied very little on these experts in the past election cycle.
“What’s The Teacher’s Pet Doing?” Imitating and measuring oneself against a good set of peers can make one soar, while a bad peer group can sow the seeds of destruction and failure. Businesses speak regularly of “best practices” or being “world class.” Governments also look for leaders to emulate.
But the election featured surprisingly little discussion of the priorities and programs of growing, successful countries overseas. For example, China and India are investing in high technology, transportation, education, and health care. Yet many successful candidates advocated cutting the same areas that are helping these countries thrive.
“Sticks and Stones …” Actually, names do hurt. Calling health care reform “Obamacare” was critical to turning people against it. People aren’t refusing to put their unemployed child on their insurance, or insisting that their cancer treatment not be covered by their insurance company. “Death panels,” Obama as a Muslim and the demonization of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi galvanized a frustrated base that agreed with the substance of many recent reforms.
Waterfront Park: Fully Funded and Ready to Go
-The Georgetowner’s editorial, “The Perpetually Delayed Waterfront Park Turns to the Community for More Money”, (November 3, 2010) could not be more wrong. The funds are in hand to complete the Georgetown Waterfront Park in the Spring of 2011. In the past several months, work on Phase 2 of the park has been moving full-steam ahead. The river steps are in place, the pergolas have been erected, and a construction of the fountain, pathways, and riverside promenade is well underway.
Despite the progress, the editorial mistakenly reported that Friends of the Georgetown Waterfront Park continue to seek additional donations from the community to complete Phase 2 of the Park. Not true. The Friends continue to recruit new members and to solicit efforts, but thanks to the Federal and District governments and private donors, sufficient funds have been raised to complete construction of the entire Park.
The editorial posed the rhetorical question: “Is this troubled park currently worth the efforts and resources of an ailing economy?” First, the Georgetown Waterfront Park is not “troubled.” The Park has been a long time coming, and the path forward has not always been straight. But with full funding the park will be completed, as planned, by mid-2011.
More importantly, is the Georgetown Waterfront Park worth the effort and resources, particularly during the current recession? Absolutely, unequivocally, “Yes.” In times of economic hardship, when recreation budgets are stretched, city residents and visitors rely increasingly on public parks and recreation areas. Were the resources of the Federal and District governments and corporate and individual donors that have been used to build the Georgetown Waterfront Park well spent? Take a walk through the park along the glistening Potomac, on a crisp November morning. Priceless.
Closing the Book on Michelle Rhee, and Other Capital Tales
Gary Tischler • November 3, 2010
The Democratic Primary election has been done and over since mid-September, but somehow, the past week still felt like election mode.
Especially if you were Vincent Gray, the still-Chairman of the City Council who won the primary. Especially if you were District of Columbia School System Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Especially if you were Mayor Adrian Fenty, who lost the primary election.
Gray, faced with what he himself identified as a deeply divided city along class and racial lines, was already in the midst of a series of town hall meetings in all eight wards of the city, when the most suspenseful issue on his plate as presumptive mayor seemed to solve itself almost as if by a magic.
That thumping noise you might have heard during Wednesday night of last week? It was just the other shoe dropping in the great back-and-forth saga of the fate of Rhee in the aftermath of the election. You know the one—will she or won’t she? Will HE or won’t he?
She won’t….be staying. And he didn’t…fire her.
Word leaked Wednesday that Michelle Rhee would be resigning from her job as chancellor. This, apparently after a number of telephone conversations between Rhee and Gray, following a lengthy meeting between the two at which both claimed not to have discussed the issue, but rather exchange views on educational philosophy and policy.
Gray, who had said that the possibility of Rhee staying was still on the table right up until the point that it wasn’t, did not fire Rhee, according to both. And Rhee did not resign abruptly, as Gray would say repeatedly. It was all a mutual decision, as both of them labored to tell the press at a conference called by Gray at the Mayflower Hotel.
“It was a mutual decision arrived at over several phone conversations,” said Gray.
The press conference was notable for its strangely muted and controlled tone, and for the debut of newly named interim chancellor Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s right-hand person at DCPS, and a leading force in school reform.
Gray’s choice of Henderson was a signal to the many voters—most of them in the predominantly white Wards 3 and 2, who had voted strongly for Fenty—that he would continue apace with school reform, which had been energetically, dramatically and often controversially conducted by Rhee. Rhee accomplished a lot, and she did it swiftly. She closed schools, fired support staff and a swath of teachers, one during a controversial RIF and the other after a series of Impact evaluations. She eventually forged a dramatic contract agreement with the teachers union, one that emphasized teacher evaluation, some merit pay and a forceful dilution of tenure. Under Rhee, test scores improved in some areas, school enrollment and graduation rates went up, and the infrastructure
improved. She also became a national figure and something of a poster child for reform, first after a cover story in Time Magazine in which she was pictured wielding a broom, and then, most recently as part of the documentary “Waiting for Superman.”
Amid the praise, there was strong criticism for perceived deteriorating relationships with the district’s poorer wards and black residents—one that mirrored Fenty’s similar problems. Those residents, especially parents, felt left out of the process. Rhee was all but attached at the hip to Fenty, for whom she made campaign appearances as a “private citizen.” She also publicly criticized Gray for not having a strong enough commitment to reform.
The dust has settled. The shoe dropped. And the official announcement came, accompanied by a show of bonhomie and mutual support. In fact, Fenty, Rhee and Gray used the word “mutual” so much that you expected a bell to ring and signal the end of trading for the day.
Rhee contended, as she does with most things, that the decision was “heart-breaking,” and that it came about because continued speculation about her future was not best for the children. “It was best for this reformer to step aside,” she said.
Gray’s choice of Henderson, who is a veteran African American educator and reform proponent, also meant that most of the top echelon of Rhee’s team would stay, giving him further bonafides as a reformer. “We cannot and will not return to the days of incrementalism,” he said.
A local television reporter asked who wanted out. “Was it that you didn’t want him anymore or he didn’t want you anymore,” he asked Rhee. Mutual decision, Rhee said.
A national television reporter asked Fenty if Rhee had been forced out by pressure from the teacher’s union. Guess what? “It was a mutual decision,” Fenty said.
There was a lot of hugging going on here. Rhee hugged Henderson, Rhee and Gray hugged, Fenty and Gray hugged. Rhee and Fenty hugged. No one hugged members of the media.
Oddly enough, the question of Rhee and reform hardly came up the following night at Foundry Methodist Church in Ward 2, one of those wards which had voted overwhelmingly for Fenty in the primary. Maybe it was because Henderson was part of the VIP audience.
While Gray made a lengthy exhortation about his reform commitment, the audience moved on to other things: the presence of a noisy pizza parlor in Georgetown, the makeup and power of the many commissions and boards who often make key policy decisions; raising taxes (or not); the looming budget crisis; statehood. Gray impressed many with a command of the issues, seemingly calling
up statistics, examples and understanding of how this city functions and works, not so much as a politician showing off but as a man who seems to have made a study of the subject of bureaucracy and government at work.
Gray also showed a certain benign kind of opportunism, in the sense that he used every question as a way to not only invite, but urge people to take part in the process of government. Asked about how grants are received by aging programs. “This isn’t just an issue about which organization gets what grants,” he said. “This is about protecting some of our most vulnerable citizens, the elderly and others. You have to want to take part here. You can do that. Work as a volunteer, work with those groups that give seniors an opportunity to come together in groups.”
Per talking about the looming budget crisis ($175 or more million deficit coming right up): “We need your input and cooperation in this. We are all in this together. It’s not the government’s problem, it’s not the city council’s problem or the mayor’s or some agency’s, and it’s ours. Tough decisions are going to be made; I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Cuts will have to be made. Don’t’ say, ‘cut this one or that one, but not the one that we don’t want cut.’ It’s about all of us. We need your input.”
Talking about statehood really jazzed him up. “Yeah, I’m going to be going up to the hill on this and in my capacity as mayor. But on statehood, I don’t want to go up there alone. I don’t just want to have somebody right behind me, another person on the right and the left. I want hundreds, no, thousand of people behind me, and if we get thrown in jail, so be it.” They hooted and hollered and whistled then.
A homeless person asked about the prospect of homes for everyone and then appeared to disapprove of the right to marriage law passed by the district, allowing gay couples to marry. Gray took on both. “Housing for everyone sounds nice,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want it? But it doesn’t work that way. It’s impossible to be truthful. Because it’s not going to solve the problem of homelessness in this city. Everybody will come here and you increase the problem. As for the other, I fought for the legislation on right to marriage legislation. I believe in it with all my heart.”
“I came here and to all the other town hall meetings so that you can get to know me better,” he said. “Lots of people know little about me. I think maybe I wouldn’t vote for me if I knew as little as all that.”
“I want us to work together,” he said. “And that’s a concrete thing. I want people from all the wards to work together, to get to know each other. We are facing tremendous challenges but also a great future. We did that on the council, and I have to say I think we have and had a tremendously talented
council. I have to say, in all honesty, that I’m feeling a little separation anxiety starting to seep in. I’ve developed friendships in this council. We all have.” [gallery ids="99250,104244" nav="thumbs"]
The View From Tudor Place
Georgetowner • October 22, 2010
-Readers of The Georgetowner’s October 6 issue were presented with a summary of the ANC meeting including the Tudor Place Resolution in the GT Observer section and a letter by Neighbors of Tudor Place. As President of the Board of the Tudor Place Foundation, I want to address misconceptions presented in the latter.
Following proper preservation practice, in 2004 we invited proposals from two local architects, one currently a member of the Citizens Association of Georgetown’s Historic Preservation Committee and the Neighbors of Tudor Place, and selected one to lead a team of highly regarded experts to draft a preservation plan. They rigorously assessed the needs of the property’s historic resources. Then, with something concrete to discuss, we openly and in good faith engaged in public dialogue with neighbors and other stakeholders. Since January 2010, we have held nine meetings, five of them with a working
group of Neighbors of Tudor Place. We carefully considered all concerns and options presented, answering each one after extensive deliberation (and considerable expense), and made significant changes to the plan. To cite one, the proposed alterations to archives and collections storage adds $800,000 to the original $2 million estimate, hardly what we consider “a minor adjustment.”
The last private owner of Tudor Place, Armistead Peter III, granted to the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1966 “for the benefit of the United States of America [and] for the inspiration of the people.” As successors to Mr. Peter’s easement and his will, we take his mandates seriously. In the easement, Mr. Peter forbade any new construction that would “interfere with … the view of the main house from Q Street, or the view from the main house toward Q Street.” No one need fear that “what was once glorious open space will now feature imposing buildings.”
Mr. Peter also wisely foresaw the need for supplementary facilities, including “a greenhouse, a gatehouse or administration building, additions to the garage … in order to increase its storage capacity,” and other structures “necessary for making its historic values more easily or adequately
appreciated.” The National Park Service is responsible for ensuring provisions of the easement
are maintained, and we have consulted with them throughout this project.
The four new structures provided for in the easement are the same as those mentioned in the Citizens Association’s column, although there the Gatehouse has become “a large visitor’s center” and the storage facility “an extensive addition to the existing garage.” In reality, the Gatehouse will have a footprint of only 1,040 square feet, far smaller than any house fronting either side of the long 1600 block of 31st Street. The gatehouse will “stretch” all of 25 feet within Tudor Place’s 645-foot frontage on that block. What the Gatehouse will accomplish belies its small size. It will provide security, ticket sales, a gift shop and visitor toilets.
Neighbors acknowledge that the “obscenely large” addition to the 1914 garage has “now been reduced to a very large addition.” The length of this proposed fireproof and climate-controlled archive and collections repository will be reduced far more substantially than they imply, from 49 feet to 25 feet, and will be 95 feet from houses on 32nd Street. Additionally, Tudor Place will lower the addition to one story (east side) above grade (due to the slope, two stories west side) by building three stories underground.
The greenhouse has been reduced in size and height. It will be at least 125 feet from houses facing 32nd Street. “The large one-story education center [that] is still proposed a short distance from neighbors’ properties” will actually be farther from the properties than the existing garage, which will be demolished. A vegetative screen and fencing will be installed, and access to the rear yards of neighbor properties permitted.
Because the Board of Trustees takes our mission and our concern for neighbors seriously, we have made conscientious efforts to be transparent in our presentations and will continue to do so. Our planning process has been no secret; we have written and talked about it since 2004. We have offered open forums at Tudor Place on Oct. 14 and again on Oct. 20 to review what is proposed. To sign up, or if there are concerns or inquiries, we encourage you to call 202-965-0400, ext. 100. We want everyone to know not only where and what we plan to build, but why we must.
From the Neighbors of Tudor Place
Georgetowner • October 8, 2010
-We write in response to a press release and neighborhood mailing by Tudor Place Foundation announcing the public presentation of a Master Plan for Tudor Place, the historic house museum and garden in Georgetown. The Plan includes the construction of a two-story above ground Visitor Center on 31st Street, a large one story Education Center behind 1670 31st Street, a large Greenhouse visible from 32nd Street, and a large Collections Storage addition at the south end of the historic Garage that currently tops out at six stories above 32nd Street. All of these projects are to be located at the perimeter of the property and will transform the Tudor Place from a residential into an institutional property and will diminish its historic character.
We, the undersigned sixty-plus neighbors of Tudor Place, are adamantly opposed to several aspects of this plan. We believe that other community residents, if faced with the same circumstances, would react as we have—politely, proactively and persistently—to create a plan satisfactory to all parties.
We support the goals of this Master Plan, which are to ensure the long-term preservation of the historic house and the archives and collections, to better secure the property, and to continue the educational mission of the Foundation.
We live on the streets around Tudor Place, and we value the historic house, especially its landscape. We have been staunch supporters of Tudor Place over the years, volunteering time and donating funds. We have testified at past BZA hearings in support of Tudor Place.
When we first learned of the Master Plan earlier this year, we were stunned that the Plan had been in preparation for two years without any consultation with the surrounding community. We were shocked by the scope of the proposed plan: a near 50% increase (about 10,000 SF) to the existing physical plant at Tudor Place (about 21,000 SF including the 10,000 SF main house).
Since then, a “working group” of neighbors has generated alternatives that would accommodate the expressed needs of Tudor Place while reducing the impact of the proposed construction on neighboring properties. While Tudor Place has responded with minor adjustments, the most negative aspects of the original Plan remain.
When asked about digitizing the archives and storing them offsite so that the building space could be reduced, Tudor Place told us that digitizing was very expensive and that the collections should not leave the property. We accepted that.
We asked about Tudor Place purchasing one of the larger nearby houses and configuring it to accommodate their needs. We were told that was too expensive.
We asked if the historic value of the 1960s fallout shelter preempted its use as collections storage. After being initially told that Tudor Place would consider this option, we have since been told that the fallout shelter will not be considered for collections storage. We have accepted that.
We asked if the Greenhouse could be located on the south side of the historic garage building where a smaller greenhouse is now located. We were told that while this could be acceptable, it was however the only suitable location for the planned collections storage facility. We have NOT accepted this.
Tudor Place has done little to accommodate our concerns and has dismissed our proposed alternatives as inefficient or too expensive. The obscenely large collections storage addition to an already enormous building along 32nd Street has now been reduced to a very large addition, still larger and rising much higher than the houses that face it. We proposed placing this storage facility underground. The large one-story Education Center is still proposed a short distance from neighbors’ properties. We proposed locating it closer to the existing building where it would have little or no impact. The Greenhouse has been reduced slightly in size but will still be a dominant presence in the currently vegetated hillside.
We have presented Tudor Place with viable alternatives to their Plan that would satisfy their needs as well as the concerns of the neighbors. This $10-12 million plan will take Tudor Place into its next 50 years. Isn’t doing the right thing worth some minor sacrifices in efficiency or cost? We are looking for a Plan that will unite the neighborhood in support.
Neighbors of Tudor Place
Jennifer and Tim Altemus
Melissa and Doug Anderson
Carl Colby and Dorothy Browning
Kathy Bissell and Lee Congdon
Mary Ellen Connell
Ellen Clare and Scott Dreyer
Margaret and Stephen Goldsmith
Helen Darling and Bradford Gray
Edward and Vi Fightner
Laura Harper and Arnold Robert
Georgina Owen and Outerbridge Horsey
Corry and Jim Rooks
Carol and Leigh Seaver
Mindy and Dwight Smith
George and Elizabeth Stevens
Denise and Les Taylor
Danielle Tarraf and Philipp Steiner
Gary Tischler • October 6, 2010
-What people remembered about that morning was how incredibly blue the sky was — the kind of gorgeous day it was, making you feel grateful how heart-breakingly beautiful it was.
We had skies like that this Labor Day weekend, a break from the oppressive bouts of heat. Blue as a baby, a Dutch painting.
On the Tuesday that became a simple number — 9/11 — I hadn’t yet made it a habit to turn on my computer first thing after brushing my teeth. Instead, I headed out the door to take a 42 bus downtown near the White House, on my way to a photography exhibition opening at the Corcoran Gallery. I didn’t bring my camera, and I didn’t have a cell phone. I didn’t have a clue.
As the bus neared the Farragut stop, you began to see a large number of people on the sidewalks, most of them on their cell phones, which was not yet a common sight. Many of them appeared agitated. More and more people started to pour out of office buildings and the Executive Office Building.
At Pennsylvania Avenue, with the White House as a backdrop, I walked up to a policeman and asked him what was going on. “Oh, not much,” he said. “Two planes were hijacked and rammed into the World Trade Center in New York. Another one just hit the Pentagon. There’s one that’s supposed to be coming here.”
He nodded toward the White House. My first thought was why the hell are we standing here? But I didn’t say anything except maybe “Jesus” or “Oh my God”. I couldn’t say. I decided to stay and see what happened.
That was the start 9/11 for me. I saw a group of Christian stockbrokers fall to their knees outside an office building where they were convening and they prayed. I saw people start the long walks home to Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and the Maryland border. I saw people gathered around a television set in the Mayflower Hotel, and I saw the real-time collapse of the second tower. It looked unreal. A nurse who was here for a medical convention said “I’m going home to a different world.”
Somewhere in a place called Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a fourth plane had crashed in a field near this small town outside Pittsburgh, after passengers had stormed the cockpit and fought the hijackers. On Thanksgiving two years later, we visited the site: there was a big memorial full of flags and angels there and a huge indentation in a field a distance away. The town was small, and it had a football field. It snowed into the quiet
I remember the days afterward: the president’s speech, his stand on the rocks, the awful images from New York, the rubble, the many dead, and the pictures of falling bodies. I remember a girl, late at night, sitting on the steps, holding a lit candle. I remember being among a group of people in Adams Morgan, who had gathered to hold candles and sing folk songs from our youth — “We Shall Overcome.”
I remember two survivors of the attacks — one from the Pentagon and a blonde office worker from the World Trade Center, who came to the Corcoran where an exhibition of photographs from 9/11 was opening. They told personal stories of their trials and still mourned those lost. The fact that the stories were plain-spoken and true made them seem like incantations.
I remember that The Georgetowner ran something like five cover stories continuously after 9/11 on 9/11. The streak did not stop until the death of Beatle George Harrison, which seemed in a strange way oddly celebratory and sad at once.
I know this much: wars came and continue, American soldiers continue to serve and die, and we and the rest of the world have an enemy that appears implacable in its devotion to destruction, violence, bombings, and war as a way of showing their hatred of cultures and nations that are different from them. This seems never ending — the carnage and that contrary idea of a holy war. This is the world we live in. They call themselves by many names — Jihadists, Taliban, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas. Here we call them terrorists. There the entire region seems in turmoil — Iraq after us, Afghanistan, Pakistan, flooded and bombed at once. It is a cauldron of suffering.
That blue-sky day prevails in my memory. I saw the Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria this summer, in which the man playing Jesus — a dentist — wailed at Gethsemane, crying out to God that “you have thrown me into the dust of death.”
That’s what we saw that day: the dust of death. It blotted out the perfect blue sky.
Jack Evans Report
Georgetowner • June 17, 2010
This past week the council completed its work on the FY 2011 budget. States and localities around the nation, of course, are dealing with problems similar to those facing the District: a significant decline in revenues matched up against state and local budgets, which have seen sharp growth through the current decade. Much like the housing mortgage market, irrational exuberance in the stock market or the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, state and local governments have been overleveraged for a few years and now that revenues have remained flat for a third straight year, it would make sense to make some adjustments.
A good case in point is the dust-up which occurred over the funding for the proposed streetcar lines on H Street N.E. and in Anacostia. I’m pro-streetcar and supported the mayor’s original proposal, although I agree with the sentiment that we should put some more planning into what we are doing. That being said, as part of our budget deliberations last month we took what was a program funded by reallocating existing funds and changed it to a program for which we will now borrow an additional $47 million. I think this is a bad idea. As you may know, about two years ago the council passed a law to put a 12 percent cap on our borrowing, which I fully supported. What this means is if our operating budget for the year is $1 billion (it’s more like $5 billion!) then we can only borrow up to 12 percent of that, or $120 million. Borrowing an additional $47 million puts us very close to that line, not just for FY 2011, but going forward the next couple years.
I don’t think we should play it that close. In fact, I would advocate we do the very same thing with respect to our operating reserves and fund balances, because we don’t know what the future may hold. If the District’s revenues go down farther — witness the plunge in the stock market over the past month, which would impact our income tax collections — then the 12 percent cap becomes smaller. If we either leverage our debt all the way up to that line, or spend our fund balances or reserves all the way up to the line, then when something bad happens we have no margin for error. No margin at all. That should make people nervous — I know I am.
We should not borrow the additional $47 million. We can fund the streetcar project by maintaining the original proposed cut to the various Great Streets projects that are not going forward, by making the necessary recommended cuts by the Committee on Human Services and by reversing the plan to spend $7 million in cash on a proposal for small business streetscape relief (which is money we don’t have). It is likely the mayor and the council will revisit the budget when we come back from the summer recess on September 16, and hard decisions may well need to be made.