D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray took his fight for budget autonomy (and with Congress) directly to the people Wednesday evening. During a community meeting at Friendship Chamberlain Public Charter School, Gray warned residents of what could happen if the city shut down as a result of Congress failing to authorize the District of Columbia appropriation in the midst of the shut down.
Congress continues to treat D.C. as if it is a federal agency. When Congress chartered the federal city, it provided a federal payment that paid the city’s finances. Then, the D.C. budget was indeed largely comprised of federally appropriated dollars, subject to Congressional oversight and scrutiny.
Congress still appropriates federal dollars for the court systems – the president appoints, and the Senate still approves, all judges.
Federal funds for some public safety measures also come from Congress. The U.S. Marshall’s Service provides court security and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia still prosecutes local crimes – the only U.S. Attorney’s Office on the country to do so.
However, the federal government provides for only $3 billion of the city’s $11.5 billion budget for FY 2014, which includes the $1.5 billion surplus. $2.9 billion of that comes from federal grants and Medicaid. The remainder, or 1 percent of the entire D.C. budget, is from the federal payment to the city.
So, why doesn’t Congress release D.C.’s locally raised funds – the vast majority of the city’s budget.
“Now, many people have asked why the District is treated this way when it comes to spending our own money.” Gray told the audience.
“I have never gotten anything approaching a reasonable answer to that question. And that’s why, yesterday, we gathered on Capitol Hill to demand quick action – because we are facing very dire consequences if Congress and the President do not act very soon to free us to spend our own local tax dollars in the midst of this stalemate.”
In recent days, Gray and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) have raised the tone of their discussions with Congressional leaders and President Obama regarding D.C.’s fiscal crisis. Gray confronted an agitated Senator Reid after a news conference Wednesday and Norton pushed President Obama for answers at the White House Wednesday afternoon.
The city opted to use its reserve funds rather than cease operations and close its doors when the federal government shut down 10 days ago. Since then, city employees and most services have been paid from reserve dollars.
Now, the funds are close to depletion, leaving Gray with a decision to find additional money or shutter operations – the latter of which Gray is reluctant to do.
“I’m not going to furlough anybody,” said Gray after his speech to the community. “I’m not going to do that. What it means is that … our employees will recognize they may not get a paycheck on time, and our contractors, our providers, may not get paid in a timely fashion. This may mean some of them will have to discontinue services, which is very unfortunate.
“It isn’t a question of if they will get paid, it’s a question of when they will get paid.”
Gray said that in the coming days, he and city officials will determine if they need to declare a state of emergency. If they do, an additional $110 million of emergency funds would become available. However, that would not go very far. The city spends about $100 million every two weeks just for payroll expenses.
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Correction: This article has been edited to correct the name of the old Chamberlain School to Friendship Chamberlain PCS.