The Jack Evans Report

August 25, 2010

 

-Our long hot summer will soon enough turn the bend of Labor Day and the September 14 primary which will select the Democratic nominee for Mayor, Council Chair and a number of races down the ballot. As many of you know, I have endorsed Mayor Adrian Fenty for reelection, but regardless of the election’s outcome, the city faces 5 key issues which the Mayor and the Council will have to confront after all the speeches are done and the buttons and signs are put away. We’ll talk about two of them today:

1. Schools. This continues to be one of the central issues facing the city, and historically has broken down like this: “rich” kids go to private or parochial schools and “poor” kids are stuck in run down schools with no future. Over the past 30 years the city has hemorrhaged middle class people, but good schools are key to retaining middle class families in the city and improving outcomes for low income kids. Mayor Fenty has made some pretty big changes, starting with authoring the Schools Facilities Modernization Financing Act as a Councilmember, and of course, as Mayor, implementing the takeover of the school system and installing Chancellor Michele Rhee as its head. As a result of the first legislation and a lot of hard work by Allen Lew and his facilities team, our school construction and maintenance efforts are the best they have been in a generation, by far. At some point credit is due to the Mayor for this. The other changes have been somewhat more controversial, but I believe Fenty and Rhee are on the right track by trying to bring more accountability into the system. My observation over the years has been this: for years we had a performance evaluation system where almost by magic no one was ever fired for lack of performance, but our schools were at the same time among the worst performing in the nation. Fenty has quite correctly identified this as fundamentally problematic and has sought to change old ways of doing business.

2. Fiscal responsibility. As Chair of the Council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue, you’ve seen me write about this topic often, and it continues to be a concern of mine. Fortunately, the District has the relative stability of the federal employment base, but in the FY 2011 budget cycle this spring, I expressed a number of concerns which all go back to this one notion: we can’t live beyond our means. For the last several years we’ve spent down revenue from our fund balances, which were once over $1.5 billion but which now are down to about $500 million. I believe the decline in our revenue — chiefly in the realm of commercial property — is not likely to return in the near term. A certain amount of our economy through the 2000’s was built on the shaky foundation of irrational exuberance. Yet the size of our government has not been restrained in proportion to the shrinking revenue. Using our fund balance the past three year has allowed us to paper over the problem, but I believe the next mayor and council won’t have this luxury — and I’ll note I was the only Member of the Council to vote against the budget this past year.

Those are the two biggest issues we’ll face next year. Next column we’ll talk about three more.

The author is a city councilmember representing District Ward 2.

August 11, 2010

   

Maryland Blue Crabs: A Delmarva Summer Send-Off


As the mid-August heat grows muggy and yellow, the long days sputtering the unassuming masses to a heat-induced, midday standstill, a familiar shudder runs through the collective spine of the District. In the throes of the year’s most relentless barrage of heat and humidity, Washingtonians have learned to intuit the swansong of a long, scorching summer.

In avoiding the grueling heat and saving our business attire from embarrassing sweat stains, it becomes easy to dismiss the last weeks of summer, to forget the bursting anticipation that comes upon us in mid-April at the end of a gray winter. It is high time to focus our energy and relish in the closing month of engrossing sunlight, of beaches and sunscreen and barbecues and swimming pools, like the encore of a Stones concert.

And perhaps no feast quite so exemplifies a Delmarva summer like a bucket of steamed Maryland blue crabs. Corn, hushpuppies, coleslaw, a wooden mallet, a pair of nutcrackers, and a large roll of butcher paper is everything that friends or families need to experience this summer treat at its finest. However, popular opinion has led many to believe that in order to get the best pickin’s, one must drive all the way out to the Chesapeake Bay or Annapolis. And while there is no doubt about the deeply-rooted seafood culture and history in those areas, there is plenty of top-quality crab to be gotten inside the beltway.

This past year, despite limits on crab fishing and concerns among the shrinking population of these creatures, this has been an astoundingly fruitful year for crab fishing. So, whether eating out or going down to the Wharf to pick up your catch alive and fresh, here are the best places in town to get some quintessential Maryland blue crab and enjoy the end of summer the way everyone should.


Bethesda Crab House, Bethesda
Imagine your favorite dive bar. Now add picnic tables and mountains of steamed crabs, and you’ve got Bethesda Crab House. A long-established institution in the area, the menu is short and sweet. They do crabs, crab cakes and crab legs. But they do them well. Their crab cakes are what will really get you coming back time and time again. As they’ll tell you at the cash register, it is nothing but heaps of crabmeat with a little mayonnaise to bind it together. These guys know how to make a real Maryland crab cake. There are no french-fries at Bethesda Crab House, as the space is small and the fryer would take up too much room in the back. Plus the establishment believes they just fill you up anyway so you can’t eat as much crab. This is the perfect antidote for your crab cravings. And don’t forget to get an order of corn on the cob. (301-652-3382, 4958 Bethesda Ave.)


Quarterdeck Restaurant, Arlington
Hidden among the high rise apartment buildings, not a mile from the Key Bridge, the Quarterdeck is easy to miss. Built into an old house, the interior atmosphere, with its wood plank siding and worn, beachy furniture and décor, would lead you to believe you were somewhere on Chesapeake Bay, or down in some low-key seafood shack in Virginia Beach. The patio is double the size of the inside, and the buckets of crabs tumble out of the kitchen until the restaurant runs out.

As delivery status of the crabs are day-to-day, the restaurant encourages patrons to call at the beginning of the day to check for availability and make crab reservations for that evening — if you wait to walk in for dinner, there often won’t be any left by the time you show up. Quarterdeck Restaurant has a policy to serve steamed crabs only when local crabs are in season, so you know you’re getting the freshest catch every time you go. (703-528-2722, 1200 Fort Myer Dr.)


The Wharf, Southwest Washington
If you’re brave enough to cook crabs on your own, the Wharf, on the southwest waterfront off Maine Avenue, is a wealth of fresh daily catch. You can get most fish that you’re looking for there, though in the summer months, their specialties are shrimp and crab. The Maryland blue crabs this season are piled in monstrous, twitching towers on beds of ice, fat and blue and beautiful. There’s no big secret to cooking them. Throw them in a big steamer with plenty of Old Bay, make sure there is vinegar in the water, and steam until they turn red. (1100 Maine Ave. S.W.)

Jack Evans Report

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.