Monday, February 21, 2011

"Navigating" DC's budget: What does $90,000 get you?

EDIT - 02/22: ...and Kwame keeps on digging. WCP's Loose Lips has more on Kwame's apparent confusion as to how two Lincoln Navigators ended up making their way to DC. Best quote? "It's a possibility that someone said hey, 'he wants it fully loaded,' and that's why I take full responsibility."

You just can't make this stuff up.

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EDIT: DCist's Martin Austermuhle has a similar piece today which delves into more specifics.

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DC is facing a $175 million budget shortfall for its FY 2011 budget. That the city is facing a shortfall isn't unusual in light of the ongoing economic turmoil: many jurisdictions around the country are facing similar budget crunches, and responding in myriad ways. But it's during these times of fiscal crisis that people start paying a bit more attention to the things our tax dollars are paying for. This is particularly true in local politics, where the use of tax dollars is more visible than at the national level.

One of the hallmarks of mayor Vince Gray's 2010 campaign victory over then-mayor Adrian M. Fenty was Gray's repeated calls for transparency, openness and an end to the cronyism he claimed was rampant in the Fenty administration.

In fact, I'll let Gray tell you himself. From his mayoral campaign website, which has been taken offline but which resides for all eternity in Google's cache (emphasis mine):

"If we’re going to accomplish any of our goals – real school reform, jobs for every District resident, and safer communities – we need to restore a public trust in the mayor’s office that has been shattered.

And with good reason.

It seems like every day there’s another story in the newspaper about mismanaged public dollars and shady deals.


We were promised transparency and openness, but instead see sweetheart deals and cronyism, and millions of dollars of contracts secretly funneled through back channels to prevent public scrutiny and Council oversight."

Kwame brown adopts a similar tone on his campaign website:

"As Council Chairman, Kwame will ensure that the D.C. City Council remains a strong, independent voice for District residents through open, transparent, and accountable governance. He will lead a unified Council to promote policies that improve the everyday lives of District residents across all eight Wards. By adopting a good, common sense approach to government, he is confident that the Council will remain accountable to those it serves."

Sounds great. After all, who wouldn't want to take a swipe at the mismanagement of public funds and cronyism? Gray and DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown seem ready to lead the charge.

Only, as they say, the devil is in the details. Or, in Gray and Brown's case, the devil is in the SUVs.

News broke this weekend, via the local politico tag-team of the Post's Mike DeBonis and the City Paper's Alan Suderman, that DC taxpayers are footing a bill for over $90,000 a year in lease payments for cars for both Brown and Gray. This includes a fully loaded Lincoln Navigator for Gray, along with a Lincoln Town Car for staff use, and two fully loaded Lincoln Navigators for Brown--including one rejected by Brown because it had the wrong interior color (gray, rather than the black he had specifically requested), but which DC is still on the hook for throughout the majority of 2011. Keep in mind, the $90,000 bill is simply for lease payments; it doesn't include things like insurance, maintenance, fuel and other costs associated with owning the vehicles.

Gray's fully loaded Navigator alone is costing taxpayers nearly $1,900/month in lease payments. (It's worth noting that Adrian Fenty's SmartCar, while paid for by the city, cost only $18,000--a practical pittance compared with the cost of the Navigators requested by Gray and Brown.) And this from the man who decried the "mismanaged public dollars" that led to a supposed shattering in the trust DC residents had with the mayor's office.

Aside from the general sleeziness of the Navigator requests (which includes Brown's refusal to own up to requesting the Navigator(s) in the first place. And really, Kwame? A full entertainment system? Aluminum wheels?), there's a deeper question here: why are DC taxpayers footing the bill for such perks for Council Members at a time when the District is facing such a mounting deficit? After all, Gray is making approximately $200,000 per year as mayor of DC, and Brown is bringing in $190,000--both well in excess of both the city and area's median incomes.

A recent Pew Research report examined the perks and costs of running the city councils of 15 major cities across the country. The annual operating costs for the DC Council, at over $19 million, make it the second-highest in the country, behind only Los Angeles, and its per-resident cost of over $32 squashes the competition. And while the report notes that DC does not provide a car for use by its councilmembers, it does provide a stipend and reimbursement--which works out to being essentially the same thing. There is an argument to be made that the DC Council must assume responsibilities that, in other cities, are handled by the state. But that doesn't absolve the Council from a close scrutiny of their expenses, including the provision of a stipend for the purchase and upkeep of cars for councilmembers.

The FY2011 DC budget includes a line item of $2.56 million for "Council Benefits," which includes items like car stipends. This represents a 2.5% decrease from the FY2010 budget. Meanwhile, the District's Department of Mental Health saw a 9.2% cut in its budget (and a cut of nearly 20% from FY2009 levels). In fact, buried within the FY2011 Human Services budget are all kinds of goodies: an elimination of an over $1 million fund for the Low Income Energy Assistance Program; a $3.4 million cut to the Interim Disability Assistance fund; a $292,000 cut to the General Children's Assistance fund; a transfer of over $1.7 million from reserves into the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, and so on.

In fact, in the Council's proposed FY2011 budget gap-closing plan, not one cent is devoted to cuts in DC Council Benefits.

All the while, the mayor who advocates sound fiscal management has been on a hiring spree of late, and according to a recent Washington Post story has been routinely exceeding the District's salary cap on senior staffers. This includes a $180,000 salary for Gray's interim Human Resources Director Judy Banks--who happens to be a personal friend of Gray advisor Lorraine Greene, and whose salary exceeds the District's cap for the position.

Gray argues that such salaries, and an increase in senior level positions, are necessary in order to recruit and retain competent people for the District government. But, one must wonder where "fiscal responsibility" and "recruitment of competent people" end, and profligacy and cronyism begins? With Gray and Brown, the lines seem to blur.

No one is arguing that Brown and Gray's auto stipends are driving the city into an economic crisis. But in politics, especially local politics, the so-called "optics" matter. What are we to make of a mayor who ran on a campaign of transparency and fiscal responsibility requesting that the city procure luxury vehicles for his and his staff's use, and who routinely hires friends and "confidants" for senior positions while exceeding the District's pay caps? What are we to make of the head of our Council--a Council which already boasts one of the highest operating costs in the nation--claiming ignorance as to how District taxpayers ended up footing the bill for two fully loaded luxury SUVs for his use, while presiding over a $175 million budget shortfall?

For the residents of the city who put Gray and Brown into office because they thought they would be better stewards of the city's resources, and believed they would be more receptive to their needs and concerns, $90,000 can provide an awful lot by way of city services. For the likes of Gray and Brown, it simply provides them a way to get around town.


Anonymous said...

This DC taxpayer is utterly outraged by the contempt that Brown and Gray so obviously have for the citizens who pay for these unneeded SUVs. Every dime of that money should have been spent on schools, or job training, or police.

Anonymous said...

Considering how many Fenty supporters are still upset over the election, maybe this is all that's needed to get something started to get Gray impeached. The loss of Gabe Klein was the first big mistake Gray made. We need to get this city back on its feet again before we end up back in the Barry days

Anonymous said...

I didn't vote for Gray and suspect that this is only the beginning of my absolute distaste for his leadership style (and substance). In fact, I'd be happy to see the return of a Tony Williams-led control board.

From my perspective, there were NO acceptable council chair candidates in this last election, something which lead me to vote for no one for the council chair position. It comes as no surprise to me that the king-of-the-couldn't-manage-his-own-finances-and-mortgage candidate Kwame Brown is off to such a stellar performance.

Anonymous said...

The Post corrected itself on the Lincoln Town Car for the Mayor's "staff". Truth is, the Town Car was purchased by MPD for the Mayor's security detail.

I have no problem with the Mayor having a Navigator to get around. Fenty had a Navigator (used by MPD to transport his wife) and a Smart Car.

What is insulting is Kwame Brown acquiring a 'special order' top of the line Navigator, having it 'driven' to the District (at a cost of $1500.00) so that it could be delived time enough for inauguration day. While, at the same time, furloughing thousands of District government workers (cutting pay) and asking the citizens to 'spread the pain' of a dismal budget.

Amber said...

Brown's fully-loaded SUV ought to be replaced with a fully-loaded smarttrip card.

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate Gray's Navigator is about 20% more expensive than Fenty's car, but the differences in staff salaries for those with more qualifications makes sense to me. I don't find excusable Brown's request for top-of-the-line transportation, ASAP - I don't see how this benefits DC residents. If he really hopes to own up to his luxurious ways, he should introduce a bill eliminating this perk for the Council.

Anonymous said...

I can understand the Mayor having his car taken care of by the city although it's a little over the top however, Mr. Brown is not the mayor and should be responsible for buying his own pimp mobile. The residents of this city pay some of the highest taxes in the country and our elected officials should be more responsible in view of the current economic deficits. Mr. Brown deserves a good raking over the coals on this one and the mayor deserves to be rebuked for allowing it to happen.

Erin said...

I just sent an email to Kwame Brown, his staff and Jim Graham (since I'm a Ward 1 resident) about this mess. I hope others are doing the same.

Anonymous said...

This comment section is woefully lacking in the usual Fenty bashing and lame excuses from the pro-Gray apologists. Get with it folks! Remind us again how horrible Mr. Fenty was and how much better Mr. Gray will be for all of us. IMHO, Mr. Fenty hired top-notch administrators (mostly) and he did not have to bust the city's salary caps to do it. With Mr. Gray's new brand of nepotism, I have yet to be convinced that DC is not moving backwards into the "bad ol' days".

Anonymous said...

First off, does the DC Council Chairman actually need a city vehicle? Second, I told anyone who would listen last year as they were jumping on the Kwame bandwagon, "He's immature. He's not a serious man. He's in this because he needs a better paying job." Kwame -- while I don't think he is evil -- is like a little kid. He can't control his personal finances -- how much is he in hock? How many hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts, credit card bills and back taxes does Kwame owe? I predicted "buyer's remorse." I just didn't think it would come this soon.

Anonymous said...

I am outraged that Mayor Fenty's administration approved these expenditures in December 2010.

I am doubly outraged that Adrian Fenty's appointed head of DPW, Bill Howland, doubled his mistake and approved two of these expensive vehicles.

Just more evidence that Fenty couldn't be bothered to manage his staff or be bothered to finish out his term by showing up to work.

Mr. Other Upper NW said...

Wow - so it's Fenty's fault that Brown ordered two luxury SUVs and Gray is busting the personnel budget?

Are you sure Adrian isn't advising Gaddahfi as well?

Mr. Other Upper NW said...

Please be respectful in your comments, or they will be deleted. Thanks.

Herb said...

Did anyone hear anything back from CM Graham? I have sent him 2 emails on this and haven't heard a thing.