Last Thursday, the Chief Financial Officer for the District of Columbia announced an estimated $140 million revenue surplus for Fiscal Year 2012. The fiscal year ended yesterday.
So the Gray administration has considerably more money than it thought it had when it said it could postpone the scheduled cuts in benefits for families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for only six months, rather than the full year the DC Council wanted but couldn’t find the funds for.
And that it couldn’t, as the Council also wanted, afford to temporarily stop the time-limit clock for parents who shouldn’t be expected to meet standard work requirements, e.g., because they’re suffering from domestic violence trauma or have a disabled child to care for.
The Gray administration also presumably has money it didn’t know about when it said it could do nothing for homeless families who are sleeping in bus stations, abandoned buildings and the like.
This doesn’t mean it hasn’t had the money to help them, however. Councilmember Jim Graham announced two weeks ago that he had identified $14 million in unspent funds that could be used to shelter and/or house those families.
No perceptible response from the Gray administration. It chose instead to leave a growing number of shelter units vacant — now in excess of even the large number set aside as backup in the plan for the upcoming winter season.
And it’s used its clout to keep the DC Housing Authority from issuing locally-funded housing vouchers too, though it’s expressed an unarguable preference for affordable housing over shelter.
The CFO rightly expresses concerns about the potential impact of the impending across-the-board cuts in federal spending and other potential threats to the local economy. So it would seem prudent to hold a good portion of the revenue surplus in reserve.
But the Gray administration could do that and also, as the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless recommends, put enough into a separate spending account to address the immediate and foreseeable crises for TANF families and homeless residents.
The DC Fiscal Policy Institute tells us that $5.8 million would cover the costs of a further six-month delay in TANF benefits cuts and the exemptions the Council passed, but left unfunded — unless a rosier revenue forecast indicates there’s money for them in the new budget year.
The Gray administration itself identified a $7 million shortfall for homeless services. The gap-closing funds are at the top of the Council’s list of uses for those hoped-for extra revenues.
The Department of Human Services has said that, without them, it will have to cut shelter capacity for individual men and women in half next April, when the winter season officially ends.
Also eliminate some critical services, including transportation to shelters, job training for occupants and mid-day meals for families at DC General — the main local shelter for them.
What DHS hasn’t said is that it would almost certainly retain its new policy of denying shelter to homeless families, except during the official winter season — even families who have no safe place to stay.
So, in my view, the Gray administration should put into the temporary account more than the projected $7 million shortfall — especially because we’ve got good reasons to believe that DHS won’t be able to carry out its plan for housing homeless families this winter.
Say it put twice as much into the account for homeless services, plus the funding needed to keep well over 6,000 TANF families from utter destitution.
It would still have some $120 million to shore up the budget if the across-the-board cuts — or others Congress substitutes — depress revenues and/or put further stress on safety net programs.
Shortly after Councilmember Graham came up with the $14 million for homeless families, Professor Matt Fraidin observed that the Gray administration was “fumbling an easy” policy choice by refusing to do anything — except perhaps take the children away from their parents.
The CFO’s surplus projection gives the administration a chance to do a reset — though not to undo the damage to homeless children it’s already caused.
The Mayor has reportedly decided to take a pass. Both he and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson say that every penny of the surplus will stay in the bank.
This is what the Council decided would be done with end-of-year surpluses when Gray was Chairman. But, hey, laws get amended all the time.
Gray himself is urging Congress to change or replace the law that’s triggering the across-the-board cuts. Calls the process “completely unacceptable and destructive.”
So, to my mind, is letting his poorest One City constituents suffer when he’s got more than enough new-found funds to avert crises that his budget choices created to begin with.