March 1, 2009

Open letter to DC City Council and the Mayor

As part of the Coalition for Community Investment, Bread for the City has joined with a large and diverse group of community organizations, advocates and small businesses to call for openness and balance in the upcoming DC budget deliberations.

This is certainly a time of great difficulty for our city, which is facing a nearly unprecedented budget shortfall. And yet, smart and fair choices can be made to ensure that the most vulnerable communities in DC are protected from the worst effects of this economic downturn. With ample opportunity for public feedback, these choices will set the stage for a recovery that benefits all of the city's residents.

The full text of the letter (also posted at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute) follows below:

The economic crisis sweeping across the region affects all of us. We represent two sides of D.C.'s new economic vulnerabilities: a social service provider trying to cope with skyrocketing demands and falling donations, and a small business trying to survive as unemployment rises and consumer spending plummets.

What we have in common is our concern that the huge budget gaps facing the District could lead to devastating cuts in services. This could make matters worse for all of us by further depressing consumer spending and creating additional hardships for our most vulnerable neighbors.

That's why we're working together in a new coalition to urge Mayor Fenty and the D.C. Council to avoid such cuts and to include the public in its budget making processes. We believe that taking these steps, along with other guiding principles outlined herein, will limit the negative consequences of budget balancing measures.

The most immediate problem is that, even after a number of program cuts were made, the city still faces a $130 million hole in the budget. This gap is caused by declining revenues—the depth of needs in our city didn’t change. Meanwhile, the Mayor and his team are crafting the next budget in the face of what will very likely be continuing economic troubles.

We all have to manage our own budgets, and understand that hard choices have to be made. But we also know that the well-being of our community depends on public investments that expand local economic opportunity and support local families. D.C.’s economic troubles will be far greater and more prolonged if these investments are retrenched.

And so we offer, on behalf of the Coalition for Community Investment, the following common-sense principles to guide the budget-making process. The Coalition represents over 160 businesses, faith-based groups, nonprofits, environmental, labor and advocacy organizations:

Stimulate local economic recovery. At a time when the private economy is faltering, public investments can provide needed stimulus. Support for children and families, the environment and our infrastructure will help D.C. build living-wage jobs, healthy communities and a thriving business climate.

This is what President Obama and Congress are hoping to do with the federal economic stimulus package. We trust the Mayor and Council will take full advantage of any aid to states that is included in the package. The funds should be spent in ways that will relieve immediate hardships, save or create jobs and support major longer term priorities.

Don’t Be Penny Wise and Pound Foolish. Cutbacks to safety net programs that help stabilize struggling families often increase hardship, reducing residents’ buying power and creating the need for more costly emergency services. Reducing support for families and individuals who are already struggling with low wages, layoffs and rising living costs is also frankly unjust.

Similarly, short-term gains realized by cuts in infrastructure, environmental protection and public works have the potential to make our city dirtier, less healthy, and broken down.

Include sensible revenue expansions. Nobody likes the idea of higher taxes. But there are ways to create new revenue without exacerbating our current economic challenges. The Council’s recent decision to raise very low parking meter rates is a good example. It was supported by many businesses because it increases customer traffic. The city also has a rainy-day fund for emergencies. We think the most severe economic recession since the Great Depression qualifies as an emergency. The Mayor and Council should explore additional options as well.

Include the Public While Making Decisions
. The tough choices that Mayor Fenty and Council members must make are much less likely to have negative consequences if concerned residents are informed and consulted. While decisions need to be made swiftly, timeliness should not come at the expense of inclusiveness. In particular, the Mayor and Council members should hold public forums to discuss the city’s challenges and invite input before final decisions are made.

President Obama has made transparency and direct government investment in communities priorities for his administration as he works to revive the American economy. The District should follow suit.

Working together, D.C. residents and city leaders can chart a path through this financial crisis by investing in the long-term strength of our families, our economy and our communities. We will emerge wiser and stronger for it.

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