District of Columbia keeps cutting as it nears running out of money


WASHINGTON -- The District of Columbia sent 80,000 public school students home for the summer last Friday -- two weeks ahead of schedule. The school system is broke.

Early dismissal D.C.-style provided the appropriate punctuation to a dispiriting spring that revealed, day by day, the breathtaking magnitude of Washington's problems.

The police are so furious about their huge pay cut that they are slow to make nonemergency arrests and the chief quit.

The mayor, Marion S. Barry Jr., is under investigation for alleged ethics violations and the district's credit rating has plunged to junk bond status.

And the garbage went uncollected for three days in many parts (( of the city because too many trucks are broken down.

Squeezed between a dwindling tax base and soaring social needs, the capital of the United States is broke. The district's $3.2 billion budget dropped $722 million into the red this spring. The city will run out of cash this summer without a federal bailout.

In its 22 years of limited self-rule, the city of Washington has had financial problems before. This time, though, Congress had seen enough and imposed on the district a blue-ribbon control board with sweeping authority over the district's finances.

If the city doesn't do what's necessary to balance its budget, the five-member panel can overrule Mr. Barry and the City Council on virtually any spending decisions.

Dismayed by countless municipal pratfalls, many in the city dearly want to believe that the new board can save the district from itself.

"I'm grateful. I think we basically had a City Council and a mayor over the last decade who could just not get a grip on how the bureaucrats were wasting money," says Ed Grandis, head of the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association, which represents businesses in one of Washington's best-known neighborhoods. "We needed someone to come in and get our house in order."

Economist Andrew F. Brimmer, President Clinton's choice to head the new oversight board, is preaching patience as the panel tries to rescue a city on the ropes.

"If these were not difficult issues, there would be no need to have an authority," Mr. Brimmer says.

The tell-tale signs of the city's slide are hard to miss.

Along New York Avenue, the gateway to the district from the north and east, a "Welcome to Washington" sign beckons from (( its roadside perch. But everything else about the route screams, "Go away."

A scruffy man with matted hair waves a tree branch at morning traffic in an eerie daily ritual. The six-lane thoroughfare is a rough quilt of potholes, litter and buckled pavement rimmed by crumbling curbs and waist-high weeds. Commuters will have to live with it, since new road projects are on hold, another casualty of the budget crunch.

Just south of New York Avenue lies Trinidad, a working-class neighborhood of the sort the city needs to nurture. Trinidad must deal with the familiar ravages of urban life such as drug abuse and unemployment, but the community is also suffering from official neglect.

George A. Boyd, a 40-year resident of the neighborhood, has been waiting a month for the city to haul away an old mattress and other garbage that a former neighbor left in the alley behind his house.

Street sweeping, which used to be a regular service, stopped weeks ago. Housing code inspectors are a distant memory, Mr. Boyd says, despite the many abandoned houses. On the football field behind the elementary school, the grass is as high as winter wheat.

Fed up, Mr. Boyd, 67, and some neighbors got together the other day to cut the lawn at the local recreation center.

A mile away on Capitol Hill, Peter Modlin, who grew up in West Baltimore, worries about the crime in his brownstone neighborhood.

Holding his 7-month-old daughter, Mr. Modlin told Mr. Barry at a town meeting that he and his wife, Joi, call the police every night to drive drug dealers off the streets. But police are slow to respond, he says, and the dealers always come back.

"I just want what everyone else wants," Mr. Modlin, 33, told the mayor. Cupping his hands over his daughter's ears, he said, "I don't want my daughter being called bitch or whore. I don't want my wife being afraid to go out of the door."

Impressed by Mr. Modlin's concern for his family, Mr. Barry asked the audience to give him a round of applause. As for the drug dealers, the mayor could offer few solutions.

The district, like Baltimore and many other older U.S. cities, has for decades suffered from the flight of middle-class residents to the suburbs. There is no clear-cut evidence that the current crisis has intensified that trend. However, there are more houses for sale this spring than during the same period last year.

If some residents have had enough, many more seem resigned to their municipal government's shortcomings.

"I think people are sticking it out," says Michael Orso, a Capitol Hill resident who has helped organize a citizens crime patrol in his area.

Officials know that services have suffered but say it's inevitable when the budget is cut so drastically.

Larry King, the public works director, says the budget cuts of the past few months left him with all of six workers to mow grass and only 11 to empty the litter cans.

"I'm short of trucks. I'm short of people," he says. "I'm not defensive, just frustrated."

Dozens of nonprofit groups were more than frustrated this spring when the cash-strapped district stopped paying them for services such as counseling for troubled young people.

Mr. Barry, meanwhile, is trying to persuade the federal government to assume financial responsibility for city agencies that he says the district cannot afford. Topping the hit list is the D.C. corrections department, which happens to be mired in a class-action lawsuit over widespread sexual harassment of potentially hundreds of female employees -- a court case that could end up costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars in judgments.

First known in Washington as a civil rights activist and fiery outsider, Mr. Barry lost the mayor's office in 1990 after a drug conviction. Since returning to office, he has recast himself as a reformer.

"I want the best-run government of any city in the world," he told an audience of 600 people packed into a sometimes boisterous town meeting on Capitol Hill the other night.

"We're not quite there," he added.

That is no revelation to most Washingtonians, who view the city government with varying degrees of frustration, anger and contempt.

Jim Anglemeyer, vice president of a Virginia contracting firm, says he is amazed by the money wasted by the district on a courthouse renovation handled by his company -- the $1 million project he says is at least $400,000 over budget, a year late and not finished because of government mistakes and change orders.

Even Mr. Barry says he is tired of the inefficiencies of the government he helped build.

"Many of you complain, and rightly so, that our employees are rude on the telephone or don't know what they're talking about," the mayor told the Capitol Hill audience.

The mayor had a partial solution. Upon returning to office, he ordered 1,700 clerical workers to attend courses in manners and proper office procedure.

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