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Native Intelligence
Tax fight exposes politics of greed
(Published May 16, 2005)

By DIANA WINTHROP

I am a regular reader of community newsletters and discussion groups, which have exploded in numbers during the past few years. They have replaced the talking over the back fence or discussions on the porch of my childhood in then working- and middle-class Glover Park -- which is now called "North Georgetown" by some and those little, attached homes are selling for $750,000.

Since the city council preliminarily approved the $7.2 billion fiscal 2006 budget (with $4.94 billion in locally generated funds) a week ago, I have been seething and barely able to contain my anger and disappointment at some of my supposedly intelligent, educated, wealthy neighbors in Ward 3, who are clogging the community newsletters with inaccurate and outdated information -- and just plain selfish and really mean-spirited messages about spending on public schools instead of providing more tax relief.

The perpetuation of the so-called "urban myth" really raises my blood pressure. One facet of the myth that continues to be raised is that the D.C. public school system "spends more per pupil than any school system in the country and student test scores are some of the lowest."

That's right, folks. Punish children by withholding public money and give more tax relief to the wealthiest of our residents. Even the Washington Post, which helped perpetuate this inaccurate information, corrected itself a few years ago and conceded that D.C. was fifth in per-pupil spending in the region. The reality is that the cost per pupil seems high because of the inclusion of court-mandated special education costs, including the millions spent to send special needs students to private institutions around the country.

I have seen only one newsletter contributor defend the spending of most of the city's $40 million surplus on school maintenance and renovation of crumbling buildings. "Just because the D.C. public schools are poorly managed doesn't mean they don't also desperately need more money. Of course we should demand better DCPS management -- no right-minded person disagrees with that -- but in the meantime we have to be careful indulging our punishment fantasies by sneering at all DCPS funding requests," the Ward 3 resident wrote.

Granted, there are some legitimate complaints from residents (especially those retired and on fixed incomes) who have been hammered by spiraling property tax assessments, but they are not the ones complaining in the neighborhood newsletters. Those longtime Ward 3 residents were once the real middle-class of D.C. but are now classified as "rich" because their home assessments exceed $750,000.

My elderly mother is one of those, but she isn't complaining about spending on vulnerable children. My parents, along with many other residents, bought homes in Ward 3 in the 1960s for $30,000 to $40,000. Those same homes now are assessed at almost $1 million and even more.

These people are "house rich" but personally poor because they are living on fixed incomes, such as Social Security. They want to keep living in the District but are being squeezed by their taxes. The whiners largely are "the new rich residents," who are wealthy enough to lay out a million or more now to live in the District.

My anger really centers on their complaints that the council didn't give those new wealthy residents enough tax breaks. I could sympathize if those residents were ignored during this budget cycle, but the council almost doubled the homestead deduction from $38,000 to $60,000 and, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute analysis, over half of D.C. homeowners will pay less in property taxes in 2006 than they did this year.

My disappointment in many of these "new money" residents is that they refuse to see investments in public schools as important for themselves. They either have grown children or no children in the school system, or their children attend private schools. It's the "what's in it for me" syndrome.

One of my neighbors, who fits into this cranky class of residents, characterizes the school spending as irresponsible and predicts it will cause problems when the real estate bubble bursts. My neighbor accuses Ward 3 Councilwoman Kathy Patterson of "ignoring" him and other residents to gain political capital with residents in other neighborhoods (meaning those in Wards 7 and 8, where most of the city's public school children reside), because she might run for the council chairmanship if Linda Cropp decides to throw her hat in the ring for mayor. But, in the same breadth, this same neighbor promotes Jack Evans for seeking a 5 percent cap on tax increases instead of the current 12 percent -- as though Evans is pure of purpose and has no political aspirations (he has already said he is running for mayor once again).

Some council members told me privately that things actually may be better for my cranky neighbors by the time the council votes on the final budget in early June. There is an effort, gaining support, to lower property taxes.

But it might also be helpful if the small, cranky band of whiners who feel they pay too much in property tax -- who have too much time on their hands and apparently don't want to share their wealth with their community -- also focused their energies on finding more ways to raise revenue for the city to replace those property taxes.

It is time once again to bring up the issue of taxing Fannie Mae, which is currently under investigation for questionable accounting practices and paying its board members millions of dollars in bonuses. In lieu of taxes, Fannie Mae's foundation doles out money in the District to many important community projects, but not nearly as much as the city could receive if Fannie Mae paid taxes. Just think what we could do with a few hundred million extra dollars.

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Diana Winthrop is a native Washingtonian. Contact her at diana@thecommondenominator.com.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator