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D.C.'s budget follies

(Published September 23, 2002)

Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. City Council members need to stop bowing to the arrogant dictates of a Congress that is, as a body, ignorant of the District of Columbia's needs and, instead, become much stronger advocates for their own constituents.

Rather than once again rolling over, as it appears they intend to do by making disastrous budget cuts at the behest of Congress that will only further hurt the District's most needy residents, the mayor and council should be standing up for full funding of D.C.'s critical education and human service needs.

They could take a lesson from the much-maligned D.C. Board of Education. The school board has shown the political courage to publicly defy calls for cutting as much as $100 million out of the public schools' budget to help close a projected $323 million gap in the overall city budget for fiscal 2003, which begins Oct. 1.

School board members, both elected and appointed, are unanimous in their assertions that cutting any amount from the school system's budget will decimate the steady progress that has been made toward improving public education in the District. They have repeatedly noted that $200 million already was cut last spring from what they originally termed an "adequate" budget to meet the public schools' needs. They say the schools' budget will be balanced at year's end and should not be tampered with.

Among the cuts that council members are contemplating in the schools' budget is a delay of pay raises the school board negotiated with unions representing almost all front-line workers except teachers. The council approved a 19 percent pay increase for teachers earlier this year. School officials say delaying pay raises for non-teaching employees - many of whom have not received a raise since 1993 - will severely affect morale and could possibly result in the school district losing many valued workers to suburban school systems that still have jobs open at higher pay.

It seems rather odd that organized labor isn't screaming louder and in unison against such unfair treatment of D.C. Public Schools workers and the children they serve.

It's worth noting that the local AFL-CIO Labor Council recently stood behind Mayor Williams and the city council incumbents who overwhelmingly won their primary election races right before budget cuts were publicly proposed. In fact, Williams campaign co-chair Gwendolyn Hemphill is an official of the Washington Teachers Union.

But we digress.

When Mayor Williams was first elected in 1998, he and the city council pledged to work together to "make the trains run on time" in a city where the leaders for many years seemed to not be able to get the trains running at all.

Four years later, the trains are now running - but they still can't run on time because the timekeeper keeps changing the clock.

Plans to alleviate and eliminate serious problems in the District cannot be continually put in place and then starved of the necessary funding to be carried out. That's a recipe for certain failure.

Political courage and a hefty dose of belt-tightening within the top administrative ranks of the D.C. government's bloated executive branch are called for in dealing with the city's current budget crisis. Pampered public officials need to quickly learn to do more with less - and to work much harder themselves, with fewer trappings of power.

It is immoral for a city that has amassed multimillion dollar budget surpluses for the past four years to now tell its citizens that there is not enough money to continue providing essential services. It further smacks of tremendous mismanagement of public funds.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator