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Op-Ed

Fixing the District: Phase 2

Joyce A. Ladner

Three years ago, when my colleagues and I began our terms on the D.C. financial control board, we were unprepared for the extent of the city’s problems. The erosion of the infrastructure and inadequate service delivery systems were worse than expected. Little had been invested in the maintenance of our buildings, roads, equipment or the work force. Thousands had been added to the payroll as part of a massive public works program, and the city’s credit was worthless.

But those days are gone. Since 1994, the work force has been sized down by about 10,000 people. The budget has been balanced for two consecutive years, with a surplus in fiscal year ’97 and another expected in ’98. Expected reductions in the accumulated deficit should bring further improvements in the city’s credit rating. A new financial management system is being installed to help alleviate many of the problems in managing and controlling budgets.

Yet much more remains to be done. With my term having expired two weeks ago, I’d like to offer the new board a list of issues to consider:

Maintain a balanced budget. The legislation that created the control board mandates that the city’s budget be balanced for four consecutive years. To ensure home rule’s restoration, the next board must continue these efforts—despite enormous pressures to increase spending.

Fix the schools. Although the control board invested considerable resources in the schools, they were directed primarily toward the repair of the physical infrastructure. While roofs and boilers are important, the current superintendent is justifiably focusing on classroom education. We must build safe and competitive schools for our children. Furthermore, while I firmly believe that there should be restoration of power to the elected school board by June 2000, it should be done incrementally to ensure integration of the policy and operations for the system.

Further reduce crime. The scandal-plagued police department has begun to restore its credibility with the hiring of a new police chief. Now it must renovate dilapidated facilities, purchase equipment and get the officers back on the streets. Recent decreases in major crime can be sustained through continued vigorous actions. Build a better federal relationship. With the passage of the Revitalization Act, Congress eliminated the $660 million annual federal payment. A one-time contribution of $198 million was provided to the city for fiscal 1998, but it does not begin to pay for the federal government’s obligations to the District. The District’s dual status as national capital and local city forces us to underwrite most city, county and state functions. While the revitalization legislation brought a great deal of relief, particularly with funding the liability in the pension program, many equity issues remain unresolved.

Reform city management. Although management reforms to improve service delivery are underway, the new board must vigorously ensure continued reform. Restoration of home rule is predicated on substantial improvements in services.

Rebuild the infrastructure. Schools, roads, computers, government buildings are all in desperate shape. The surplus is insufficient to meet these needs.

Reduce court orders. The failure of the District government to provide adequate services in mental health, foster care, medical care for inmates and school transportation has led to court intervention. For years, few efforts were made to meet courts’ demands so that the decrees could be lifted. This approach has been costly to taxpayers. The next control board and the courts must find a solution.

Lead the transition back to home rule. Part of that challenge includes the recommendation to Congress of an effective structure for municipal governance. This is a critical issue, as citizens are demanding—rightfully so—more involvement with the decisions that govern their lives.

I joined the board because I believe the city deserves better than it frequently has received—and I wanted to make a difference. I know that the new board, working with elected officials and our citizens, will continue to make a difference in our lives.

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