New, Quick Way To Support A Balanced Approach To DC Budget-Balancing

April 18, 2010

I’ve already beaten the drum for tax increases to help balance the District’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget. Now the Fair Budget Coalition has given us a quick and easy way to support them.

Though the mayor’s proposals include some revenue-raisers, they’re apparently not enough to avert cuts to a number of programs that serve the needs of the District’s low-income residents. As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, child care, adult education and job training, mental health services and support to help grandparents care for their grandchildren will all take hits.

And the level funding proposed for some other programs–homeless services and locally-funded housing vouchers, for example–will deny many low-income residents the help they urgently need.

DCFPI has pulled together its previous recommendations for revenue-raisers and, unless I’m mistaken, added some new ones. All told, they would raise somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 million. Together with Congressional approval of more reasonable rainy day fund rules, they would produce the wherewithal for a budget that minimizes immediate hardships and puts our community on track toward a fairer, more prosperous future.

FBC has an editable letter we can send to support this balanced approach. DC Council committees have begun work on their parts of the budget. So time is of the essence here.


Next Round In the DC Homeless Services Crisis

October 13, 2009

This Wednesday at noon, the DC Council Committee on Human Services will hold a roundtable hearing on the District’s winter plan. Or at least that’s the formal topic for the hearing. The dialogue will undoubtedly be broader because, at this point, what’s at stake is the longer-term future of homeless services in D.C.

Since the hearing was scheduled:

  • Homeless service providers have been told that their contracts will be reduced by an average of 30%. Five shelter providers have warned that their clients are at immediate risk. One has said her organization will have to close a housing program for families.
  • Interested parties have locked horns on the size of the homeless services budget cut. We’ve now learned that it’s apparently somewhat over $12 million. Most of this cut represents funds in the federal block grant for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. These were formerly used to supplement the local homeless services appropriation but have been diverted to other programs.
  • Clarence Carter, head of the DC Human Services Department, has issued a statement committing only to funding for the shelter capacity and other services identified in the winter plan, capped at the Fiscal Year 2009 level. No assurance that any funds will be available for the rest of the year.
  • Some Councilmembers, including Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, have expressed dismay at this turn of events.

So the hearing promises to be lively and potentially consequential.

A coalition of homeless service providers, advocates and homeless people has scheduled a press conference on the steps of the John A. Wilson building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, at 11:00 a.m. This will be a great opportunity to learn more about what’s happening and likely to happen if the Council or administration higher-ups don’t step in to restore the homeless services budget.

You can influence the outcome of this crisis by calling or e-mailing Mayor Fenty, the City Administrator and members of the Human Services Committee. Contact information for committee members is in the Council directory.

Also attend the press conference and/or hearing if you can. A big turnout will show Councilmembers that their constituents care about the safety and well-being of their homeless neighbors.

No Clear Answers on DC Shelter Cutbacks

October 7, 2009

Last Saturday, the Washington Post reported that the Fenty administration had cut funding for homeless services by $20 million. The source for that figure was Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee. He says the cuts took him by surprise–that the budget he asked the Council to vote on included no cuts in homeless services.

That takes me by surprise. The expenditure reductions table that blogger and budget “insider” Susie Cambria got from reliable sources certainly indicates cuts for homeless services, though nowhere near $20 million.

In any event, Wells changed the agenda for a scheduled hearing so that he could look into the issue. As the Post reports, Clarence Carter, head of the Department of Human Services, testified that Wells was “dead wrong.” The actual cut was more like $900,000.

Moreover, he said, funding for the Community Partnership for Homelessness Prevention, which manages homeless services for the District, is about the same as last year’s, though he also referred to a budget reduction of $11.5 million. Wells and homeless advocates insisted the cut was larger–about 30%.

One would think the amount of funding available for homeless services would be beyond dispute. But the Budget Request Act–the appropriations the Council approved–has no separate line item for homeless services. So DHS can allocate funding for these services as it sees fit and move money around in response to changing priorities and pressures.

Whatever the figure, a fact sheet issued by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says that at least five emergency shelter and transitional housing providers were notified on September 28 that their contracts would be cut by an average of 30%, effective October 1. This much apparently is not in dispute.

We’re given to understand that a lot of people who now have shelter will be out on the streets unless the mandated cuts are rescinded. And we know there are now 385 families on the waiting list for shelter or other housing.

The official start of the hypothermia season is just weeks away. And the winter plan, which is supposed to be a blueprint for how the District will provide shelter for every individual and family who needs protection from the cold, assumes more capacity than apparently will be available.

So we obviously have a crisis–and, what’s worse, no clear view of its dimensions or potential solutions. The roots of the problem go back to the over-broad budget allocation and what certainly seems to be a lack of transparency on the part of the Fenty administration.

Whatever Carter told the Community Partnership and/or the providers, he testified that his department had the funds to cope as recently as mid-July. And he said not a word to the contrary when the Interagency Council on Homelessness met in early September.

But I’d be sorry to see all the blame heaped on DHS. After all, the Council voted to cut the department’s budget. What did they expect? That somehow homeless and other poor people wouldn’t be hurt?

CORRECTION: The version of the Fiscal Year 2010 budget submitted for Congressional approval on September 28 has a separate line item for homeless services. The budget was restructured this year to put these in the family services account.

DC Councilmembers Propose Tax Giveaways

June 10, 2009

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has been blogging on proposed tax breaks for select commercial interests.

First came a posting on proposed tax abatements for six new projects. These include a luxury hotel in Foggy Bottom and two developments at Metro stations–all prime real estate and potentially very profitable. DCFPI estimates lost revenues at $3.3 million in FY 2010 and $13.7 million through FY 2013.

Now comes a posting on a bill to substitute a modest lump sum payment for the taxes the Union Station retail center pays. This one gives away an estimated $2.45 million a year.

I’m simply appalled. Here’s a City Council that:

  • Just congratulated itself for closing an $800 million budget gap while modestly increasing funding for a handful of programs that serve low-income people.
  • But couldn’t find enough funds for TANF benefits to even keep them level with inflation.
  • Couldn’t find enough funds for the Local Rent Supplement Program to support the development of more than 180 affordable housing units.
  • Virtually ignored the dire straits of the Housing Production Trust Fund–another key source of funding for affordable housing construction and renovation.
  • Is well aware that the upcoming revised revenue forecast may reveal a new budget gap.

And yet some Councilmembers are proposing bills that would reduce District revenues. If they really think we’ve got money to spare, then why not use it to shore up programs that help our most vulnerable families meet basic needs?

Doing that would make the city a better place for all of us. Tax breaks for retailers at Union State won’t.

Will the Economic Recovery Package Work?

February 24, 2009

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius observes that media coverage of the economic recovery package is like reports on a baseball game or tennis match. Will the legislation prove a win for Obama or for the Republican opposition?

We, the voting public, will provide the answer. And for most of us, I think, it will depend on what we believe the legislation is supposed to do. If we expect it to turn the economy around, then we’re likely to be disappointed. This is what the Republican leadership is banking on.

If we expect the package to help avert a greater crisis, then our verdict still hangs in the balance. After all, the package is only one component of a recovery strategy that’s still evolving. In the works now are foreclosure reduction legislation, the auto industry bailout and some still unspecified actions to deal with endangered banks. All these venture into uncharted waters.

And then there’s the fact that the economic crisis isn’t ours alone. It’s also affecting numerous countries that import U.S. products. So recovery here would seem to depend on what happens there.

This much seems fairly certain: Some major spending measures in the package will cushion hardships for poor and at-risk individuals and families. And income supports for them will generate immediate spending, which should give a boost to some types of retail businesses and their suppliers.

It’s also quite certain that the package will moderate the devastating cuts that state and local governments have been planning–and, in some cases, already initiated–in services for poor individuals and families.

For example, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that at least 28 states have proposed or implemented cutbacks in public health services and/or changed eligibility requirements to reduce enrollments. Some of these measures may be averted by the Medicaid provisions in the economic recovery package.

But crucial programs for homeless and other poor people still face tough days ahead as state and local governments struggle to balance their budgets. The shortfalls are large. The needs are great.

Yet at least six Republican governors are saying they may not accept all the funding available in the economic recovery package. They cite various objections–the impact on the national debt, loss of “state sovereignty,” pressures to maintain the higher funding levels once the federal infusion runs out. Three have specifically said they will reject the funding to expand their unemployment insurance programs.

The underlying concern, of course, is that they may have to raise taxes to provide for the basic needs of their poor constituents and others at risk of poverty due to the recession.

These governors obviously need to hear from constituents who believe these needs should be served, and they need to hear ASAP. Because the economic recovery package definitely won’t work unless it’s given a fair chance.