Vive le maire!

By the

February 1, 2001

The District of Columbia has long been plagued with idiosyncrasies that belie even the best attempts at explanation. The federal government is the city’s largest landholder, but it pays no property taxes. Over 60 percent of the money earned by laborers inside of District lines goes to workers who live outside of the city. It has a larger population than some states but no voting rights. And, until recently, the elected city government did not have the last say when it came to controlling its own budget.

In 1995, during the darkest days of despair of the Barry administration, the federal government installed a financial control board to oversee the administration of the city’s finances. The city had plunged into record debt at a time when the rest of the country was enjoying an economic boom. City bonds were degraded to junk status and the nation’s capital became a blight on the national economy. Perhaps, then, the financial control board was justified. Certainly the history of the Barry administration would not suggest that it would have been able to right the ship on its own. Partially in reaction to their failures, the voters elected Anthony Williams to the mayoralty in 1998.

Now, in 2001, the District has run fiscal surpluses for four straight years. In 1996, there was a deficit in the fund balance of $518 million. On Monday, Mayor Williams’ Chief Financial Officer, Natwar Gandhi, announced that the District is running a surplus of $465 million, a billion dollar turnaround that marks one of the most astounding financial comebacks in this country’s history. This four-year period of prosperity means that the financial control board will be dissolved and the control of the budget will return to the mayor and the city council.

Mayor Williams deserves a lot of the credit for this turnaround, if only because he restored the citizens’ faith in their government. The well-documented excesses and abuses of the Barry administration had led many residents of the District to expect the worst from their elected officials. Williams, maybe only because he is the polar opposite of Barry, has instilled a newfound sense of confidence for political leaders into the citizenry. Whether he is directly responsible for the new money in the District’s coffers is another question.

Not only has wealth increased during Williams’s term, but we have also seen a return of affluent residents to the District, reversing the trend of their flight to the suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s. The image of the District as “Dodge City” has disappeared under the leadership of Williams and Chief of Police Charles Ramsey. We can now claim that we live in a safe city that is making serious progress towards a more efficient administration.

Williams cannot claim all of the credit, though. The federal government did assume the administration of pension, prison and Medicare programs, a significant part of the city’s total expenses. Unprecedented prosperity has also played an important part in returning the District to fiscal solvency. Even today, there are serious questions concerning the fiscal health of the District. The funding of D.C. General Hospital, the city’s only public hospital, has put serious strains on the District’s budget; and city officials have debated shutting it down or turning it into an outpatient center. Last month, Gandhi announced a potential shortfall of $200 million in this year’s budget and went on to say that the city couldcut services to make up for the money. The city still has an unusually large bureaucracy and an especially large per-capita debt burden. But today, we can all say that we have control of our city back. And Anthony Williams, more so than any other person, is to thank.

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