D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser knows she has many, many blessings in her job.
While many of her fellow mayors are dealing with budget deficits and having to make tough choices regarding cuts, Bowser sits on $15.5 billion and can offer funds for various programs.
“This week, after engaging residents from all eight wards, I released my Fiscal Year 2020 Budget,” the mayor said on March 20. “These have been and continue to be very good times in D.C.”
The District has a AAA bond rating on Wall Street and new residents continue to move to the city by the hundreds every month. The city has submitted a balanced budget to the U.S. Congress, required by law, for years and the local economy has continued to grow.
Nevertheless, with the recent 35-day federal government shutdown that cost the District $47 million and slowing growth of the national economy, Bowser has resorted to being more cautious fiscally than in recent years. In a surprise move, she has requested that commercial property owners “to share some of the upside” or accept having their taxes raised.
“By capturing more real estate transactions, we will be able to invest more in affordable housing,” Bowser said.
Residents have said in surveys and at Bowser’s budget engagement forums that affordable housing tops the lists of concerns. The average rent for a District apartment stands at $2,139 per month according to RentCafe, a web site that tracks such data.
Bowser has proposed raising the District’s commitment to the Housing Production Trust Fund from $100 million to $130 million and increasing the Housing Preservation Fund from $10 million to $15 million. She has also created a new category of housing, Workforce Housing Fund for police officers, teacher, firefighters and social workers, and has put $20 million into it.
Bowser’s proposal to make the District’s bus system, the DC Circulator, free has drawn rave reviews as well as raising the pay for summer youth job program participants, making the child care tax credit permanent and eliminating the sales tax on diapers.
“This budget finds new ways to put more money back in the pockets of Washingtonians,” the mayor said. “This is a budget that will advance our D.C. values, ensure more residents are able to participate in our city’s prosperity and allow us to tackle our most pressing challenges.”
When Bowser presented her budget to the D.C. Council on March 20, that officially started the 2020 fiscal year budget season.
The budget process lasts six weeks and consists of D.C. Council members scrutinizing Bowser’s financial plan and holding hearings with District agencies on their requests and needs. After the six weeks of hearings, the council will come up with its own version of the city budget, with adjustments made to Bowser’s plan.
Bowser’s budget team of D.C. City Administrator Rashad Young, Jenny Reed, director of the Office of Budget and Management Performance, and the deputy mayors will work to keep Bowser’s plan as intact as possible. During the middle or end of May, the council will vote on the proposed budget and likely pass it on two readings.
It has been the tradition that the mayor signs the budget in June and transmits it to the U.S. Congress, the White House and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. Unless there are no objections, the 2020 budget will go into effect on Oct. 1, 2019.
The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) follows the activities of the District government from the financial perspective and how bureaucrats, agency heads and elected leaders deal with poor and working-class Washingtonians. The DCFPI issues papers and statements on programs that deal with housing, unemployment and education.
Ed Lazere, executive director of the DCFPI and longtime commentator and scholar on the District’s approach to problems of the poor and middle class, said in a statement that Bowser’s proposed budget “makes important new investments, particularly in the Housing Production Trust Fund, but in many ways missed an opportunity to address the city’s most pressing needs.”
The statement said despite increases, substantial gaps remain in areas like schools, early education, mental health and affordable housing.
“Too many D.C. residents are struggling to make ends meet,” Lazere said. “This is a good first step for increasing D.C.’s resources but more is needed to truly address D.C.’s affordable housing challenges, improve D.C.’s schools and ensure that everyone has a chance to succeed in D.C.”
Lazere noted that Bowser’s budget would have staff cuts in schools east of the Anacostia River.
“Inadequate school funding means that the District of Columbia Public Schools budget will continue the unfortunate practice of diverting half of ‘at risk’ funds for high-poverty school to other purposes,” he said. “The proposed schools budget hurts students from across D.C., but especially students of color in low-income communities who have been historically marginalized. To right this wrong we must target adequate resources to address educational inequities so that all students can succeed.”