EDITORIALS FOR 2003-2004
Editorials for 2003 and 2004 are filed here, most recent date first.
QUICK SUMMARY OF 2004 EDITORIALS
(09/04) A VISION FOR WORLD-CLASS CAPITAL CITY PLANNING -- or a Fantasy in Insular Social Engineering? It questions the adequacy of a new "DC Vision" that emphasizes the city's obligations to its 144 neighborhoods to the exclusion of its additional obligations to become the world's finest national capital city.
(08/04) ONLY CONGRESS CAN MAKE DC A FIRST-CLASS NATIONAL CAPITAL CITY: An Open Letter to The DC Subcommittee Leaders, Senate Appropriations Committee It strongly urges Congress to take up its only undeniable responsibility to the District: to assure the city's unique world-wide stature by exerting a prime role in planning and underwriting its future and providing the requisite capital investment resources.
(07/04) AFFORDABLE HOUSING FOR UNAFFORDABLE HOUSEHOLDS: Losing Money on Every Unit, but Making Up for It with Greater Volume It strongly urges the newly-formed DC Housing Task Force to address DC's more basic issues about a) its national and regional roles and b) its limited ability to support more than its share of the region's poor, before accepting any new strategy
(06/04) AN OPEN LETTER TO THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: A Potential Win-Win-Win Situation for National Pride It strongly recommends major reductions in the military facilities within DC to make room for sorely needed high-density revenue-producing private properties to help make the nation's capital a world-class city.
(05/04) SYMBOLIZING THE IDEALS, VALUES AND HEART OF OUR NATION: Is It The Quality of Regional Federal Property or the Regional Quality of Life? It presents NARPAC's many reasons for dissatisfaction with the latest draft of NCPC's Federal Elements for the Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital. Most important is the failure to recognize that DC's Third World quality of life is part of the national capital's "image".
(04/04) HOW TO SAVE A BUNDLE ON YOUR STRUCTURAL IMBALANCE: Replace the Wishful Thinking with Credible Factual Analysis It points out the serious inconsistencies between GAO and/or DC CFO estimates of who generates DC safety expenditures, and the real-world allocations proposed by the MPD.
(03/04) DON'T DISCOURAGE DC'S KIDS BY SETTING THE BARS TOO HIGH: DCPS Can't Solve Our Nation's Fundamental Adult Education Gap AloneIt cautions against setting academic goals unrealistically high, failing to recognize other equally, if not more serious, problems impacting on the school system, and trying to solve problems that still elude the whole country.
(02/04) LONG- TERM ECONOMIC PLANNING IN THE NATION' S CAPITAL CITY: "We've Met the Enemy and He Is Us" It deals with the tendency of city leaders and planners to ignore the importance of revenue production in the development of new programs whenever neighborhood activists weigh in.
(01/04) FUNCTIONING BRAIN CELLS IN DC....The Art of
Shooting from the Hip at the Wrong Target It questions DC's emphasis on the
lack of population growth, rather than focusing on the evident trends towards a sustainable
socioeconomic balance, even at a lower population level.
TWELVE QUESTIONS FOR DC WITH ONE ANSWER: STOP WINGIN' IT!
DC's piecemeal revitalization has continued apace for another year, driven not by the rationality of the city's planning process, but by the whims and biases of various advocacy groups both inside and outside the Wilson Building. As many previous NARPAC editorials have warned, the result is to present an embarrassing image of amateurs trying to play a professional's sport.
o Why does DC generate significantly different estimates of how much a ball park will cost, and no obvious alternatives for how to pay for it?
o Why does DC perpetuate an unnecessarily bloated public school infrastructure and then claim that it lacks the funds for better education and libraries?
o Why does DC focus on specialty downtown buses and trolleys to nowhere, when its world- class regional metro system is on the verge of saturation and dilapidation?
o Why does DC keep claiming it needs more federal hand-outs when it can't recognize the fallacies in un-professional studies purporting "structural imbalance"?
o Why does DC keep promising to build new hospitals for the indigent when it cannot demonstrate a lack of current facilities for adequate patient care?
o Why does DC set a goal of 100,000 new residents when its scare unencumbered land would be more revenue-productive if developed for commerce than average family households?
o Why does DC keep claiming that it is unfairly burdened by the Federal Government when it is the nation's capital city and would be a third-class inner-city wasteland without it?
o Why does DC continue to ignore the statistics showing it is well below national norms in performing municipal functions, rather than use them to challenge its oversized bureaucracy?
o Why does DC show so little interest in taking over badly under-utilized Federal Government properties and substantially increasing its own revenue base?
o Why does DC spend so little effort developing positive regional cooperation and burden- sharing with its far more prosperous adjacent suburban jurisdictions?
o Why does DC pretend it can become a first-class city without re-gentrifying many of its most blighted neighborhoods and de-concentrating/re-locating those caught in a spiral of poverty?
o Why does DC keep pretending to support transit-oriented development while allowing neighborhood activists to bar high-density zoning around many of its metro stations?
ANSWER: because DC fails to accept available professional analytical techniques by which to correctly identify its root problems, and rationally generate plausible, affordable, solutions.
THE GREAT BASEBALL FLAP--BRINGING OUT THE
WORST IN DC
City leaders have failed to establish a clear vision of DC as the unique capital city of the world's most envied country. Arguing that city operating revenues should only be used to support the city's poor is unrealistic. DC has clear obligations of both substance and image reaching well beyond the alms box and poorhouse. Why pander to activists trying to dictate how other people's money is spent, while insisting on substantial reductions in their own income and property taxes?
City leaders have failed to emphasize the need for capital investment as the sine qua non in assuring the city's long-term financial posture. There is evident confusion among residents between using bonds to finance long-term investment, and current revenues to alleviate, but not cure, the bottomless pit of poverty. And there seems to be little recognition of the unique role of businesses in contributing to the city's financial success.
City leaders have failed to explore all the options between private and public funding for the stadium, or the potential for combining year-round revenue-producing features on or adjacent to the stadium site to compensate for baseball's inherently low utilization rate.
City leaders are ignoring the major transportation requirements for a growing national capital city. While DC's Chief Bookkeeper spreads alarm by assigning potential Metro expansion costs solely to the stadium, city planners have ignored the need to provide major road, bridge, tunnel, rail, and parking facilities throughout the major planned developments of "Downtown South".
Although the vast majority of middle-class baseball enthusiasts live beyond the city limits, city leaders have not attempted to make the city ballpark a regional asset, give the team a regional name, attract regional funding. or make it available for regional events, sports or otherwise.
If the team that comes to play here has no more vision than the people who live and govern here, it is unlikely to survive in the big leagues.
ONE LAST CHANCE TO REDEEM YOUR NEGATIVE
LEGACY -- An Open Letter to Marion Barry Following His Primary Win
For decades, Ward 8 residents have been the greatest drag on city finances and city reputation, due to their grim pockets of poverty and inability to educate each other out of that cycle of poverty. Assuming that the autumn years will bring new perspectives on your role in the District's future, here is our candid (and blunt) advice. You, of all local personages, have the capability to lead your devoted followers out of the despair they are mired in, if you face these realities:
The Stage: Many Washingtonians and Americans will still expect you to play out a demagogic and partisan role. We hope you will avoid contentious theatrics and adopt a serious role in curing America's urban disparities. Please use your national stage for serious drama, not vaudeville.
Blame Game: Avoid seeming to blame others, be they the DC or Federal Governments, the city's businessmen, or the rich folks of Wards 3 and 4. Only Ward 8's leaders and residents can opt to become part of mainstream America rather than "wards of the state". DC taxpayers do not "owe" Ward 8 increased revenues, it consumes $500M more per year than it provides now.
Education: Don't assume that Ward 8's educational woes are created elsewhere. Resist the catchy notion that some imported school superintendent can be paid enough to "leave no child behind". Ward 8's problem is that its mostly-single, often teen, parents have been left behind for generations. Use existing institutions to fix those young parent(s), and they'll fix their kids.
Economic Progress: Don't pretend that the poor can enjoy the luxury of just a teeny-weeny bit of economic progress controlled by government fiat and subsidies: a sit-down restaurant here; an unskilled job there. Accept the essentiality of (re-)gentrification, de-concentration, and relocation. These are facts of life and Ward 8 can develop means to benefit directly from them.
Development Opportunities: Focus seriously on the large unexploited properties in Ward 8. Work to make St. E's a major revenue- and job-generating regional destination, not a local park. Help get those under-utilized military bases transferred for city commercial development. Insist on expanding Metrorail east of the Anacostia: don't settle for some quaint second-class trolleys.
Municipal, Regional, and National Responsibilities: Ward 8 is not some separate God-given minority enclave where progress is a lethal disease spread by outsiders. Fight to become a full-fledged member of a unified, if not integrated, team that makes our national capital city and our national capital metro area the world's finest.
DC can't become the best without Ward 8.
A VISION FOR WORLD-CLASS CAPITAL CITY PLANNING
-- or a Fantasy in Insular Social Engineering?
To NARPAC's fresh eyes and intense disappointment, the "vision" is little more than a populist fantasy of idealistic social engineering for some isolated island-kingdom of 144 independent, disparate tribes obsessed by their social inequities and awash in parochial activists. None of the key questions below are answered in the final paper or treated by the (dubious) experts' papers:
o What unique obligations accrue to the world's most prominent capital city?
(** touched on by DC Council resolution comments)
Without answers, the plan is not a guide, it is politically-tainted demagoguery directed more towards keeping DC its region's poorhouse, than making it the best national capital city.
ONLY CONGRESS CAN MAKE DC A FIRST-CLASS
NATIONAL CAPITAL CITY: An Open Letter to The DC Subcommittee Leaders, Senate
NARPAC urges Congress to exert its most appropriate, least debatable oversight role: assuring our capital city's unique worldwide stature by exerting a prime role in planning and underwriting its future. City leaders, both elected and self-proclaimed, focus primarily on persistent local socio-economic inequities. DC functions almost completely dissociated from the metro area for which it is the ever-smaller core city. It even appears to relish its role as the region's poorhouse.
For reasons of prestige, security, and regional equity, long-term federal capital investment in DC can be justified in four major areas of increasing (estimated annual) cost and long-term importance:
1. The growing "imbalance" in affordable housing for the indigent and working poor across the metro area is creating a sump for the disadvantaged within DC, frequently discouraging needed community revitalization, workforce re-location, and poverty de- concentration ($50M);
2. The capital city's water purity, sewage disposal, storm drainage, and trash removal systems all need overhaul, and would elsewhere benefit from broader-based state-level financing ($100M); 3. DC's public school infrastructure is crumbling due to years of deferred maintenance; no scaling back of school properties to reflect declining local birth rates, lower enrollment and changing household demographics; and refusal to sell-off surplus properties ($200M);
4. DC's community-oriented transportation planning threatens key issues of hub-city economic growth and regional mobility. Local resources cannot match realistic projections for daytime and residential population, car-ownership, urban household size; commercial vehicles; traffic control, off-street parking; and so forth. There are no plans to expand major road, bus and rail routes into and across the city (incl bridges and tunnels), only plans to enhance movement within DC via road-sharing trolleys, circulator buses, pedestrian and bike trails, and water taxis. The plans seem more appropriate for Atlantic City than the world's most conspicuous capital: ($800M)
Our metro area sorely needs Congress to concentrate on planning DC's long-term global image, stimulating regional cooperation, and contributing to the capital city infrastructure.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING FOR UNAFFORDABLE
HOUSEHOLDS: Losing Money on Every Unit, but Making Up for It with Greater Volume
The report offers some 30 "specific action" items, estimates that a full third of all DC households need such help, and casually notes that the whole city must be reshaped to make it more desirable and accessible for all categories of residents (viz: "strengthen non-housing conditions, especially school, public services, and safety"). With only a few edits, the report could as well conclude that DC's vast housing needs cannot be solved, because many of the 30 actions are beyond the capacity of a "stateless" city government in a free market, democratic society.
The report has only three irrefutable statements, all ignored elsewhere. At its outset: "DC is home to a disproportionate share of the region's very low income households...". At its tail end : "the fundamental demographic and economic forces shaping DC's housing market are regional, and the DC government alone can neither control them nor fully solve the challenges they create...." In the middle, it promotes "higher density development along key transportation corridors, near Metro stations". More troublesome, the report offers no estimates of the initial or sustaining costs of the many actions proposed, or of the sources for the revenues to implement them.
The report opens hopefully: "for the first time in decades it is realistic to imagine that DC will share more fully in the region's growth and prosperity" (e.g., decline more slowly?). It ignores the fact that DC needs much higher growth rates to close its gap with the region's prosperity. DC has at best two net taxpaying households for each net tax consuming household. The jurisdictions that border DC average almost 10:1. For DC to rise to "average" it needs at least 50,000 less households with incomes below $50K, and 30,000 more with incomes above $100K. Unless some low income households are relocated, many more high incomes would be needed.
The report embeds as articles of faith many speculative and unrealistic items of conventional wisdom. All deserve serious task force challenge: Should every resident of our capital city be encouraged to stay? Should every blighted neighborhood be rebuilt? Are more residents and more kids key to making DC "thrive"? Should all underused urban properties be turned into mixed-income neighborhoods? Do residents generate more revenues (per acre) than businesses? Can better jobs and job training, and higher quality commercial and municipal services be provided to every needy community? Should our nation's capital city be the region's poorhouse?
The task force results will be worthless unless these fundamentals are addressed.
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: A
Potential Win-Win-Win Situation for National Pride
We urge you and the Base Realignment and Closure Commission to begin phasing down military properties within DC, either transferring them to private sector use, or increasing their revenue-generating capability as suggested in the Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital Region.
For reference, only 13,000 of DC's 30,000 acres are 'taxable'. At best 800 commercial, and 3,200 residential acres generate more revenues than they consume in city services, due to the high fraction of the region's poor living in the city. DC has more than 1800 military-related acres which could, if fully developed at high density, double DC's local tax base. A DC acre can yield annual revenues up to $4 million commercially, or $2 million residentially. Development now underway near the Navy Yard/Marine Barracks shows what federal/DC cooperation can do.
We recommend six facilities be closed and their property privatized, including: Bolling Air Force Base, the Anacostia Naval Station, and the Naval Research Lab, totaling 1000 prime acres on the eastern shores of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers; the sprawling 40-acre Naval Security Station now occupied by the Homeland Security Agency in the middle of DC's richest residential area; the near-empty 320-acre US Soldiers and Airmen's Home near the Georgia Avenue/- Petworth metro station; and one of DC's most priceless sites, the outmoded 18-acre Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery facility between the Lincoln Memorial and the Kennedy Center.
Three existing sites can surely take on more military-related functions, and probably offer some city revenue-generating capacity as well. These include the 110-acre Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the 100-acre Ft. McNair Defense University, and the 80-acre Naval Observatory Circle.
The residual displaced functions can probably be performed elsewhere on less than 500 acres. Such space must be available within the 22,500 total acres of Ft. Meade, Ft. Belvoir, and Andrews AFB (i.e., three-quarters the size of DC!). To aid regional economic development, we urge as much growth as possible at Andrews AFB as a major "destination" in the area's least developed southeast quadrant.
We are prepared to provide additional details on any of these recommendations. They provide a rare win-win-win situation for the Defense Department, the national capital city, and for Americans everywhere who want their capital city to be the world's best.
National capital cities have distinct planning and development needs that distinguish them from other cities. While they share many traits of other major cities, by virtue of their national constituency they have unique qualities and requirements that must be accounted for in their planning. The Federal Element (this plan) is based on the premise that the nation's capital is more than a concentration of federal employees and facilities. Washington, DC is the symbolic heart of the nation. It provides a sense of permanence and centrality that extends well beyond the National Capital Region (NCR) and our national borders. It represents national power and promotes the country's shared history and traditions. Through its architecture and physical design, it symbolizes national ideals and values.So begins the for-public-comment draft of the "Federal Elements" half of Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital. It is the first major update of this long-range document since 1984, prepared by the National Capital Planning Commission, the designated central planning agency for the federal government in the National Capital Region. There will eventually be an equivalent update of the "DC Elements" half of the Comprehensive Plan, but no section for the rest of the region, and no section tying the three interdependent components together.
NARPAC's exists solely to restore pride in America's capital: by creating an urban reality that truly symbolizes our ideals, values, and heart. Our extensive comments to NCPC sadly conclude that:
o this "plan" is little more than a well-displayed, nicely written catalogue of special interest goals, totally without schedules, priorities, alternatives, or realism in funding and spatial limits;
o it deals with polishing a capital visual image that fits nicely on a postcard, but ignores DC's Third World quality of life image that is broadcast daily on national and global media;
o it dwells on historic preservation, environment, and open spaces, but offers no projections of the impact of future changes in demographics, metro area taxonomy, or urban technologies;
o it implicitly works against DC financial stability by supporting excessive building height limits, and ignoring the need to modify, transfer or swap wasted federal properties for productive DC use;
o it offers no plan to bring together federal, municipal, and suburban resources to address common regional problems and glaring inequities in socio-economics, transportation, health, etc.;
o it addresses the gamut of fringe-type transportation schemes from bicycles to "maglev" trains, but ignores the root near-term problems of downtown Metrorail: saturation and maintenance;
Our national capital's image is not tarnished by too little marble or too many cars, but by the highly visible, indelible graffiti generated by too many impoverished residents living too close together.
HOW TO SAVE A BUNDLE ON YOUR STRUCTURAL
IMBALANCE: Replace the Wishful Thinking with Credible Factual Analysis
At NARPAC , we actually read the report and found errors in many of its analytical constructs, which you can review in detail our web site at http://www.narpac.org/REXGAO.HTM. Among other things, we doubted that DC was under-funding its police department by nearly 100% primarily because a) DC's Y2000 homicide rate was seven times the national average, and b) it has more than its share of unruly kids. Reaction to our critique has been utter indifference.
Independent of the GAO report, DC's CFO has for years been making estimates of how much it costs DC out of pocket to support the federal presence. He has on several occasions estimated that the burden on DC's police and FEMS personnel is very large, estimating that because the Feds occupy 27% of DC's usable land area, they consume at least 27% of the city's need for emergency services. These estimates are also accepted and repeated at face value as part of an unending campaign to shame the Feds into underwriting the costs of DC's inefficient bureaucracy.
But now comes MPD's re-organization plan, complete with its rationale for allocating "frontline" police personnel among its 43 new PSAs in proportion to each area's weighted crimes and emergency calls. Unfortunately, the MPD report does not rationalize its overall force level, only its distribution. Nevertheless, with MPD's weighting factors, only one (yes, one) of the relevant 2439 personnel are justified based on DC's homicide rate. And the manpower allocated to the downtown area includes at most about 300 beyond those attributable to residents' needs. So take your pick: use the fanciful estimates of the GAO and DC's CFO and harangue the feds for a half- billion hand-out, or believe your own police force and help them do their own job more efficiently.
NARPAC continues to believe that DC should establish and nurture an independent Office of Budget and Program Analysis to comprehensively rationalize the resources needed to perform its municipal functions. Winging it with evidently faulty second-hand assertions seriously detracts from DC's credibility among those from whom it seeks cooperation.
DON'T DISCOURAGE DC'S KIDS BY SETTING THE BARS
TOO HIGH: DCPS Can't Solve Our Nation's Fundamental Adult Education Gap Alone
DC's public school academic performance is not nearly as bad as the Chicken Littles claim when ignoring race. Using only NAEP reading scores (for simplicity), DC's white 4th Graders are 12% above the "Great City"average (GCA) for whites, and black kids are only 5% below the black GCA. Black 8th Graders score only 2% below the black GCA, 3% below the National black average, and 4% below that of the Best City (Charlotte, NC). The real American problem is that black kids are 10% behind whites everywhere, and their graduation rates are 33% lower. Across the US, 71% of white boys and 77% of white girls graduate high school, but only 43% of black boys and 56% black girls do. Generally, most kids' school prowess reflects parental economic status which, in turn, reflects parental presence and education. Until that "cycle of poverty" is broken, neither DC nor the US will close the discouraging lifetime adult racial "education gap".
DCPS endures two major drains on what otherwise should be sufficient funding to be competitive (it out-spends the GCA by 51% per kid). It has some 43% more very costly special ed kids than the GCA, due mainly to its very high minority share (94%). No attempt is made to share that burden with its world-class, neighboring school districts. It also chooses to maintain 41% more school facilities than the GCA at a very substantial annual cost in payroll and lost city revenues. Proper school land use and/or disposition could yield a very valuable budgetary supplement.
Other options exist. "Right-sizing" (larger) and "right-siting" (away from the most blighted areas) could help academic performance by involving: fewer scarce high-competence administrative and senior staffs; fewer divergent school activists; greater safety; and a better mix of kids, teachers, and educational opportunities. Sadly, DC's new "transformation" schools are too small. Larger schools can be partitioned to keep the "small school" flavor. The genders can be separated for better academic and vocational focus. Retired military can be encouraged to teach and inspire the boys (and perhaps form one or two military schools). Federal agencies and other Washington institutions might again "adopt" schools for both selfish and altruistic purposes. And so on.
If DC revises its academic goals within plausible limits, then creative but practical innovations, already used elsewhere, can be tried and adopted within the existing DCPS school framework. If DC sets those goals too high, and ignores the depressing facts of American racial life as well as the broader problems within and beyond its school system, then excessive and unrealistic changes may be prescribed which could reduce the school system to mindless turmoil.
LONG- TERM ECONOMIC PLANNING IN THE NATION' S
CAPITAL CITY: "We've Met the Enemy and He Is Us"
Too many DC residents, when they don't get their way, too quickly attack their elected officials, try to block all urban progress, or even instigate recall actions. They show deep misunderstanding of the representative democratic process in a free market society, and the compromises required. Populists assert that good planning is done from the bottom up, starting with and building on the needs and desires of the residents, a patently misleading view of top-level citywide planning. The "needs" of some residents will always conflict with the "desires" of others. There are many key stakeholders beyond residents including: the thriving businesses and their workers (who pay many of DC's bills); the Federal Government and its varied camp followers (the only reason DC exists, and prospers!); and all US citizens who expect their capital city to reflect the best of our national lifestyle (not the pettiness of single-purpose activists).
DC has too many of the region's poor and too few of its middle-class entrepreneurs; gets most of its local revenues from sources more focused on national affairs than urban controversies; has too many employees; and relies more on Federal hand-outs than any of the states it aspires to become. Its leaders are in the thankless business of raising just enough money from some taxpayers to meet just enough needs of others, while also meeting the minimum short- and long-term needs of the city as a whole. The opposing NIMBYs (not in my backyard), NOOMPs (not out of my pocket), DIMWOEs (do it my way or else), and ICDIBAs (I could do it better alone) have little interest, knowledge, or experience in the city's overall fiscal needs, and pine for hand-outs from others.
DC's financial future is neither precarious nor fully assured. DC's leadership and those hired to plan our capital city's physical and economic future, seem preoccupied with humoring residents' whims. Those legally picked to drive this very special moving train focus too much on a few riders bouncing in their seats, and too little on analyzing, explaining, and doing what it takes to keep its engine running properly and its tracks clear, while Congress and the world watch!
FUNCTIONING BRAIN CELLS IN DC The Art of Shooting
from the Hip at the Wrong Target
"Nobody with a functioning brain cell who lives in this city could think we're losing people..."
He went on to denigrate the Bureau's estimating techniques: after all, such a loss flies in the face of the city's (misguided) goal of attracting 100,000 new residents. This reaction is similar to the dismay shown in 2000 when DC politicos found that DC's entire middle class (however defined) had not defected, thereby weakening their arguments for more Federal assistance.
NARPAC argues that nobody with a functioning brain cell who lives in or around this city should accept undifferentiated population levels as a rational goal for (or indicator of) DC's financial or societal well-being. Our brain cells tell us that the news from Census is encouraging when correlated with the city's own data bases. DC is in fact moving towards a more balanced socioeconomic posture, based on our informal numerical estimates (purposely rounded):
Population may have declined 1.5% (9,000), but there are about 10% (30,000) more taxpayers, while dependents, a large source of "tax-users", have decreased about 5% (7,000). We assume (despite lagging data) that TANF cases, SSI, Medicaid, and food stamp recipients have dropped as well.
Public school enrollment is down by about 6% (4,000), while education funding is up over 40% ($300M) and DCPS staffing has grown over 30% (2,800 FTE's). Births, particularly to teenagers, are still dropping, thus assuring a continuing decline in school kids, drop-outs, crime and poverty.
Jobs for DC residents have grown about 9% (25,000) while jobs for commuters are up about 6% (25,000). (City payroll is up about 3000 FTE's). DC office space has grown 8% (8M sqft), and the assessed value of taxable commercial properties is up more than 45% (almost $9 billion).
DC house sales may have dropped by about 50% (to 4,000), but the median price of homes sold has risen a remarkable 75% (to almost $290,000), although the assessed value of residential properties has risen about 5% ($1.2 billion). Despite dubious tax rate reductions and caps, as well as a mild recession, DC tax revenues are up almost 12% ($340M).
Our brain cells conclude that continuing increases in revenue production, combined with declining spending demands, are gradually pulling DC towards a sustainable socioeconomic balance, quite possibly with a further reduction in population.
IN DC, THE CORE CITY, ALL ROADS LEAD TO HOME:
The Failure to Develop the City's Human Capital
Again, the root problem centers around the self-perpetuating poverty and ignorance generated by inadequate parenting. Teenage girls morph into parents in nine months or less: without ever passing through adulthood; without forming any parental bonds; without preparation for rearing one or more kids; and without much hope of earning their single way out of their blighted surrounds. Teenage boys drop out and sink unnoticed into juvenile detention or adult jails and prisons. The cycle of poverty continues. The chickens have not nurtured their eggs.
Governments are in the business of deciding where to spend the marginal uncommitted dollar. Long term solutions are subordinated to near-term palliatives that make the situation appear more tolerable for all. Troubles with SATS scores? Change the tests.. Troubles with disruptive students? Hire more special ed lawyers. Troubles paying for local services? Tax the commuters. Crime rate still high? Hire more cops. Too much HIV? Dispense condoms. Can't keep up with rising property values? Cap property taxes. Accept the cycle as inevitable: enjoy the diversity. Nobody considers how few bad apples can spoil a vibrant barrel.
US laws require manufacturers to recall defective units and either replace them or fix them. There are no laws requiring parent(s) to make good on (faulty) offspring. Laws now limit how long indigent or unemployed can receive federal welfare. There are no laws that oblige parents to make their kids successful, and no laws that require kids to prepare themselves for parenthood. Can't raise your kids? The city will. Still functionally illiterate? The city will fill out your forms. We squander human capital formation and pay the price in ignorance, poor health, and crime.
We blame the schools for poor reading and test scores. What about Stanford 9 tests for home ec?, personal hygiene?, infant care? Why not fear being the drop-out capital more than being the murder capital? We blame the police for crime. Why put $10,000 per year into special ed for class-disrupting kids, and virtually nothing into special ed for community-disrupting parents and drop-outs? The near-term cart is way ahead, oblivious to the long-term horse. Leave no kid behind? Impossible, unless we leave no parent behind!
WELCOME TO THE NATIONAL CAPITAL CITY, MR.
BOBB, BUT BEWARE!....DC Should Be A Unique Symbol of American Prowess, Not a
NARPAC cannot assess this glowing endorsement for DC's new city administrator from a Richmond university professor. But Bobb is DC's last chance to redeem a city administration failing to fulfill its unique obligations to reflect American ideals. Getting the 'big issues' straight requires getting the big picture straight. Here is our version after seven years of disappointments:
First and foremost, DC is the nation's capital city and its reputation should be exemplary. What happens here is reported around the country and the world. Second, DC is the core city of what should be the nation's premier metro area. Third, DC has unique priorities and constraints unlike other US cities. It is dwarfed by the wealth, competence, and growth of its sprawling suburbs, overpowered by its Federal guardians, and largely estranged from both by mutual disdain.
DC's statistics are a national embarrassment. It is well below average in public health, safety, education, housing, and growth , and well above average in poverty, addiction, bureaucratic waste, and unethical behavior. Most of these disadvantages stem from its disproportionately large share of the region's poor. The poor perpetuate their poverty by remaining uneducated and isolated. Neither poverty nor race cause ignorance. Ignorance causes poverty in every race.
The surest, albeit the toughest, way to improve DC's dismal posture is to improve the balance of the region's poor and the region's wealth. The surest, but slowest, way to collectively break the cycle and concentration of poverty is to significantly raise the total parental household education level and provide greater regional opportunities for living and working. These will result in fewer "girl kids having kids", fewer "boy kids killing kids", and fewer bureaucrats abusing their jobs.
DC must generate more revenues and less spending per scarce acre by upgrading its own land use policies, favoring higher density urban development over preserving marginal neighborhoods, and upscale commercial over residential development. And DC needs Federal focus on: improving regional cooperation via grant incentives; transferring wasted federal lands to DC for economic development; and underwriting major capital investments for world-class urban features.
DC does not need to beg, cry wolf, or endorse bogus reports of economic imbalance. It needs to put its own bureaucratic house in order. It needs to press for full partnership with the Federal Government and its neighboring jurisdictions to level the regional socioeconomic playing field. Then it might well eventually become the best city in the best country in the world.
PUBLIC EDUCATION AND POLITICAL EXPEDIENCY IN
DC: Yet Another Example of Inadequate Municipal Leadership
More recently, however, the mayor has gone on to declare the school system a full-blown disaster (like Hurricane Isabel, in his words) that can only be saved by abandoning DC School Board autonomy and placing all education management under his own rather mercurial thumb. The kettle has apparently decided to call the pot black. Here are three reasons why this is a bad idea:
1. DCPS's basic education problems lie not so much in the realms of poor teaching and run-down buildings as in the absence of the urge to learn. NARPAC believes this core problem must be fixed outside the schools, by decreasing severe neighborhood blight and parental indifference. The School Board cannot attain its objectives until the mayor bellies up to his responsibilities and reverses the alarming growth in concentrated neighborhood poverty. The 14 DCPS 'transformation schools' seem to be redeveloping faster than the city's 12 'targeted neighborhoods'.
2. The lack of 'rigorous financial oversight' within DCPS, apparently the straw that broke the Mayor's back re the School Board, is no worse than it is among all the other agencies under the supervision of DC's 'Chief CFO'. The DCPS CFO is appointed by the city's top CFO, and the latter has shown surprising disinterest in applying rigorous financial oversight to any of DC's other over-staffed, underperforming agencies. The CFO seems to spend much more time pressing for increased extra-municipal revenues than in demanding bureaucratic productivity comparable to other American cities, counties, or states. Balancing the books is an accountant's job, providing efficient services within constrained budgets requires a real financial officer.
3. The Mayor's record on enforcing senior managers' accountability for their actions and accomplishments has become pitiful if not embarrassing. Even without quantitative proof, NARPAC would wager that DCPS has taken stronger leadership actions against a larger share of its low-performing middle/upper managers than the mayor has against his equally low-performing appointees and senior civil servants. Press clippings for September alone indicate equivocation and pussyfooting about DC's police chief, medical examiner, inspector general, proposed new personnel chief, and directors of hospitals, housing authority, and food agency.
The mayor sorely needs to exert some of the leadership the nation's capital city deserves, particularly regarding personnel and DC's abnormal number of families in poverty. Until he does, it makes little sense to expand his authority over the near-term future of all those kids still locked in the cycle of poverty.
DC MAKES SPORT OF GOVERNING: All Cheerleaders and No
DC government and activist cheerleaders are busy on many routines: drumming up support for greater voting rights in Congress, primarily to better tap the Federal Pork Barrel; boosting schemes for commuter taxes to pay for DC's own inefficiencies; hyping the need for federal subsidies to compensate for the hardships of hosting the nation's capital; whipping up enthusiasm for a baseball team which, like the 2008 Olympics DC failed to win, probably wouldn't pay for itself; hawking tax-breaks to attract businesses to the world's most influential capital, despite having the nation's lowest office vacancy rate; and pushing attendance of middle class families with kids to live in the city's bleachers, costing the city more than they would yield in revenues.
Meanwhile, DC's departing administrative coach has kept thousands of marginal "players" on the roster, and is admired for not firing anyone or riling the dozens of government unions, while turning a blind-eye towards police ticket-fixers, credit-card abusers, fraudulent acquisition contracts, incompetent hospital staff, and shady foster parents; the public education coach feeds steroids to his out-year enrollment and modernization plans, thereby distorting the city's mythical 'structural imbalance'; and the transportation coach develops new plays to increase city traffic congestion by modifying major city routes for fixed- track trolleys, and low-volume boulevards.
No better, the planning coach panders to historic and community preservation, no matter how run-down, while sidelining chances to increase the revenue-productivity of DC's scarce taxable land, even near public transit; the key financial coach touts flawed analyses justifying federal bail-outs and exaggerates DC's uncompensated costs, but has failed to develop either useful internal benchmarks by which to score DC's dismal performance against comparable jurisdictions, or a credible accounting of the relatively small costs of 'supporting' federal workers and commuters vis-a-vis the huge economic benefits of hosting the nation's capital; and the head coach makes little headway in earning cooperation from the better teams in this key metro area league.
If the name of the game is long-term financial self-sufficiency, don't bet on DC's team of high-kickers and low-achievers to make the play-offs among America's leading cities and metro areas. The national capital city may look great, but its government seems much more likely to remain a national embarrassment for its lack of financial training and self-discipline.
COMMUTER TAX FOR DC: Wrong Answer to Wrong Problem
for Wrong Reason
Using the recently released GAO report to confirm a huge structural imbalance between 'needed' operating expenditures and 'average' revenues requires multiple leaps of faith. Those who have endorsed it (including DC's CFO) either didn't read it, don't understand it, or don't know how the city spends its budget now. They must also agree that other states have equally valid structural imbalances totaling well over $50 billion per year. Note that this imaginary DC deficit, supposedly ranging from $470M to $1.2B, is driven by the following assumptions:
On the expenditures side, you must accept that (a): DC's 'public safety' personnel levels (police, fire and emergency, and corrections) should be more than doubled; (b) they should be paid 40% more, while other city employees, like teachers, should not; and.(c) the 3000+ federally-sponsored police in DC and recent federal assumption of DC's felony prisoners are irrelevant.
On the revenues side, you must believe that: (a) those who live/work within sight of the national capitol should pay no "box-seat premium" over the 'average' US taxes paid elsewhere; (b) the US income and sales taxes are not 'progressive' with increasing wealth; and (c) DC's revenue-raising capabilities have grown by less than half since 1987 even though its gross state product has doubled. Reject these bizarre assumptions and the $1.2B deficit becomes a $2.6 B surplus.
On the more substantive issue of deferred capital infrastructure maintenance and renewal, you must believe that DC's public school system should: (a) retain 25 more school properties than it now needs; (b) use schools only two-thirds as large as in other major urban school districts with better reading/math scores; and (c) plan on reversing its declining school enrollment and growing by 25%, despite still-dropping DC minority birth rates. Otherwise, cut the backlog 60%.
With respect to commuters getting a free ride, you must either: (a) overlook that DC's high commercial property tax rate brings in about $130 million from the offices they occupy; (b) reject the implicit GAO estimate that they cost DC only $40 million; or (c) perhaps buy into a consultant's fatuous claim that commuters cost DC 42% of all its locally-generated funds!
With respect to alienating our more prosperous, successful neighbors, you must also believe that the long-range interests of the nation's capital city are best served by perpetuating its already bloated bureaucracy and disproportionate share of the region's chronically poor. Why not reject these fallacies and adopt a cooperative regional program to redistribute the burdens of those poor towards the suburban jurisdictions with the long-term capacity to alleviate their afflictions?
CODIFYING DC's STRUCTURAL IMBALANCE MYTH By
Certifying Reports They Haven't Read
NARPAC has pored through the report, comparing it with current DC budget data not included, and with the original underlying methodology report. It is no easy task to find the key factors in that potential billion dollar deficit. The 1990 ACIR report gave DC a structural surplus between $1.3 and $3.3 billion. In fact, DC would still show a $1.4B to $1.8B surplus if DC was your normal, average, large American city, unmodified by the GAO.
This report does not refer to, or contain any data on, DC's current revenue and expenditure patterns. It is based on national averages, building two hypothetical budgets (differing by $326M) for a city of 572,000 people with DC's characteristics, and comparing them to three estimates of the city's normal revenue-making potential. These differ by $368M but ignore two more classic ways ACIR predicts revenue capacity. In the "worst case" scenario the CFO prefers, here is what the GAO claims:
To meet average needs with average performance, DC should have spent $444M more than it did in FY2000, including $698M (100%) more on public safety, $271M (22%) more on health and welfare, but only $43M (4%) more on public education, and $568M (26%) less on everything else.
DC was equally out of step by raising $494M (15%) too much in revenues. DC should collect $602M (172%) more from non-tax revenues, while getting $147M (56%) less from corporate income, $351M (41%) less from sales taxes and gross receipts, $539M (50%) less from personal income taxes, and $59M (9%) less from property taxes.
NARPAC finds most of these assertions and underlying assumptions bizarre. The worst-case deficit of $1.2 billion can be completely eliminated by not increasing police, FEMS and corrections personnel by 85% and not giving them a 45% raise, while reducing income taxes only 22%, not 50%.
Virtually the only report finding credible to NARPAC is that DC's cost-tracking processes still do not provide reliable information by which to make a case for reimbursement for DC services provided to Federal agencies. Unstated but more serious, DC does not measure the relative effectiveness or efficiency of any of the services it provides its residents, but is willing to con the Feds for a subsidy.
Details will follow in NARPAC's August update.
PUSHING FOR100,000 NEW RESIDENTS Increasing the Spin
with Circular Arguments
These disingenuous assertions beg two practical alternatives. One is to attract businesses instead. DC revenues from business, while not as large as those from residents, are not consumed by the high costs of municipal services as for residents. The tougher alternative is to gradually reduce DC's real structural imbalance: the disproportionate share of city poor who consume most of its public services. Over 80% of DC's income provides residential services, 75% of which go to the poor.
The new report focuses on where and how the new housing units for these 100,000 newcomers might be built. But it ignores whether the new units match either the immigrants' desires, the city's real fiscal shortfalls, or the costs of creating them. It belabors the means of creating affordable housing in blighted communities. It notes the housing potential of DC's six major new developments (but not their business potential) and of elusive new goals like 'transit-oriented development". All told, these account for at best one-third of the needed units. The remainder are identified simply as "other DC projects in the pipeline, plus private sector production". Developers and real estate agents consider that virtually impossible, particularly in the more prosperous parts of town.
The prior report stressed that generating positive net revenues from new residents will depend primarily on how many breadwinners come in each new household, and how few bread-eaters (their kids). Neither report admits that very diverse regional demographics will defy defining the right housing mix in advance or preserving it once the housing units go on the market. Can single moms be barred, or couples denied divorce or another offspring? Will there be immigration quotas on families from Fairfax or Prince George's, blacks and whites, renters and owners? Can DC bar new residents near the poverty line, or restrict family car ownership? The assured uncertainty in net revenue stream from 100K new residents makes the quest for alternative solutions mandatory.
To Dr. Rivlin's credit, she hopes her reports will trigger "broad-based dialogue". To the city's discredit, it has adopted these dubious assertions with no dialogue or independent analysis at all.
SQUANDERING SCARCE RESOURCES ON GOOD CAUSES
Where Are DC's Checks and Balances?
But land is limited for major new developments within DC's fixed 22,750 taxable acres. Most is already developed, or frozen at the status quo by strident neighborhood activists bent on keeping their backyards sacrosanct. Near-fanatic proponents of everything green, every building more than a few decades old, and no structure taller than about 100 feet, are blocking higher density growth, even around DC's world-class subway stations. And city officials are approving programs which remove premium land from the tax rolls for worthy, but starkly low efficiency use. Here are some examples:
DC needs a small, first-class "state" mental hospital for long-term patients. It doesn't need 25 unencumbered taxable acres next to a metro station, 2-story office space for all the agency's admin staff, a large surface parking lot, or three empty "historic" buildings as stand-by overflow quarters.
DC needs a Unified Command Center to deal with the city's growing emergency functions. It doesn't need 11 acres of prime unencumbered taxable land on a main road, wasting 2 acres for security 'set-back', 4 acres for roads and surface parking, or a 24/7 day care center with a staff of 50, an administration center of 100 more, to satisfy 200 call-takers (67% on the day shift).
DC needs a top-notch, centrally-located, non-profit school for some of the most troubled of its 10,000 special-ed kids. It doesn't need four unencumbered taxable acres directly abutting a metro station, with a large surface parking lot of its own, but no facilities supporting public transit.
The national capital certainly deserves an official mayoral residence of substantial stature. It doesn't need to sit on 16 unencumbered, taxable acres in the city's highest-end residential area which could be developed to produce revenues of perhaps $2 million per acre per year. It needn't be 60% as large as the White House grounds, or 60% larger than New York's Gracie Mansion grounds.
None of these worthy causes was asked to constrain sprawl, limit revenue loss, or seek less prime real estate. In fact, every one could have been sited on vacant/abandoned DC-owned, or historically-crippled land with little revenue potential. DC's school system alone has over 100 wasted acres.
The city will lose $75M in annual revenues because neither the legislative, executive, nor regulatory agencies can say "no" or even "wait a minute" to the casual use of scarce resources. The Mayor has advocates for everything but financial prudence, and a Chief Bookkeeper, but not a Chief Financial Officer. The Council toys with legislative hearings, but has no City Government Accounting Office for independent analysis and advice. The city lacks the self-control to rise from "OK" to "First Class".
PLANNING FOR DC'S ANACOSTIA WATERFRONT
INITIATIVE -- Ambitious and Worthwhile, but Shortsighted
NARPAC fully endorses this ambitious 20-25 year multi-agency project as a means to enhance pride in America's capital, but is concerned that the DFP does not look far enough ahead. We find two significant shortcomings in the draft plan that would needlessly constrain DC's continued evolution as the unique core city of America's equally unique national capital metro area:
Growth in Regional Transportation Capacity Must Be Accepted and Planned for:
Recognition that "transportation is a dominant force in the shaping of cities", and differentiating between "local and regional" needs are welcome additions to the DFP. However, no 20-25 year plan should claim that "there will always be a need to maintain current traffic capacities". Such a gratuitous cap on traffic flow across the Anacostia River and other thoroughfares would be a barrier to the economic growth of the city and region, and preserve the second class status of DC East of the Anacostia. The DFP must accommodate continuing increases in:
o private automobile ownership and use;
Emphasis on developing revenue-producing areas within AWI boundaries is a welcome addition. However, only about 10% would directly benefit the city's depressed quadrant East of the Anacostia (EoA), which remains a huge drain on limited city revenues. The DFP must support:
o more robust regional transportation capacity within and across EoA;
NARPAC wants to be the shadow representative of all American citizens anywhere who have a firm interest in their nation's capital city and metro area. A Ward 10 is needed not because DC is the home of the federal government, but because it is the symbolic center of American life and aspirations. Many Americans want to be proud of their capital, and many of them have been embarrassed by its public image. NARPAC believes both District residents and Americans elsewhere should understand and accept their interdependence:
The DC Government and its residents are obliged to the Americans of Ward 10 to:
o attain and demonstrate an above average American urban quality of life;
o avoid harboring or encouraging embarrassing caricatures of urban ineptness and fraud;
o avoid dependence on federal hand-outs to cover municipal operating costs;
o become an evidently hospitable host to its permanent attraction the federal government; and
o sponsor and encourage cooperation with the rest of its metro area: shun isolationism.
And Ward 10 has an equally strong obligation to the residents and visitors to DC to:
o assure that DC residents become full citizens in the politics of their country;
o assure federal incentives are developed to stimulate metro area cooperation;
o encourage the sharing of federal government resources (skills and assets) with DC;
o provide federal revenues for major capital improvements needed to make DC exceptional; and
o make sure DC leaders and residents understand they bear a national responsibility.
In the good ole Marine Corps days, recruits learned marksmanship at rifle ranges by shooting at big paper bulls-eye targets up to 300 yards away. Those targets, on frames like big window sashes, were raised and lowered by other recruits in "the butts" hunkered down behind dirt berms beneath the target frames. Target hits (dzap!) were pointed out to the shooter by the "butt man" using a white disc on the end of a long stick. Target misses (whizz! or thud!) were shown by waving a red flag back and forth on the end of another long stick: "Maggie's drawers" signified missing the target completely.
NARPAC now squats in the butts (with a perfect view of its target) frantically waving its tiny red flag, as DC's mayor triumphantly zeroes in on his objectives for next four years without mentioning the capital city or the metro area it anchors (thud!), but asking Congress to renew its annual hand-out to DC rather than develop the city's own tax base (whizz!).
Meanwhile our President shoots from the hip at evil doers and the national economy, seriously raising DC's vulnerability and degrading the city's image (whizz!, thud!).
Congressman Tom Davis aims at becoming a one-man tzar of House DC Government Oversight (thud!), while DC's Delegate Norton tries to bag government homeland security jobs on DC property just freed up to generate tax revenues (whizz!).
Maryland's governor levels his sights on a second-rate purple public transit system (whizz!), and Northern Virginia's taxpayers duck the chance to pay to solve their own traffic problems (thud!).
The Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) targets the weakest possible 10-year Metro expansion plan just when the Feds are gunning for their rare six-year appropriation (thud!).
"DDOT" decides not to shoot for any new track in the next 10 years for DC's prematurely congested downtown subways (thud!), but puts its sights on linking local neighborhoods instead (whizz!).
Neighborhood activists shoot down high-density development near DC's under-used metro stations (whizz!), and DC bureaucrats shoot themselves in the foot with deplorable lack of ethics (thud!).
Are these recruits all locked on lesser targets? Can't they see Maggie's drawers? Are they distracted by a rabbit on the range? Have they decided not to win their stripes? Are they all followers and no leaders? Whatever the reason, the chances of building a capital city worthy of this nation seem to be slipping away. Anybody got a bigger flag? Or leaders with better vision?
A HAPPY AND PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR FOR DC? -- NOT
Despite those activists still clamoring for political independence, however, the city is inescapably bound to the overpowering federal presence. DCt has no state-level political or geographic buffers to insulate it from the mercurial attention and disparaging inattention of its part-time Congressional overseers. In normal times, the federal focus and the local focus have generally been closely aligned. High-priority national programs to alleviate poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, ill health, chronic unemployment, racial discrimination, substance abuse, crime, substandard housing, urban sprawl, traffic congestion, and environmental abuses are all directed primarily to the inner, older realms of the ubiquitous American metropolitan areas. DC's image in the nation and the world depends on the success of such programs.
But now the federal attention, for good or imagined reasons, has turned towards international problems and the exercise of overwhelming US powers to pre-emptively eliminate suspected 'enemies of the state'. American cities in general, and our national capital city in particular, are bound to suffer. Under the guise of 'wartime' necessities, civil liberties are compromised; police are diverted; domestic programs are curtailed; appropriations are delayed; expedient legislation is passed; deficit spending is endorsed; economic dislocations are accepted; discrimination is condoned; security for dignitaries takes precedence over public convenience; foreign alienation is ignored; and public demonstrations and their restraint turn more violent. And the capital city becomes symbolic not of American freedom and promise to be admired and emulated, but of the source of American intrusive power and a primary target for "enemy" and ideological retaliation.
Such concerns are not just fanciful. DC's FY03 budget (how it plans to spend its own taxpayers' revenues) has not been approved by a pre-occupied Congress; a city deficit looms as the economy sours; unemployment is rising as benefits are being terminated; crime is on the rise again; expected population growth has not materialized; tourism has not returned to pre-9/11 levels; anti-war demonstrations have begun; the President, but no one else, even DC's mayor, has been inoculated against smallpox; secret underground construction at the vice-presidential residence is annoying and jeopardizing neighbors' homes; barriers around federal buildings are being supplemented; the only noticeable cooperation between metro area jurisdictions is directed towards stopping terrorism and evacuating the inner city in the event of nuclear, chemical ,or biological attack!
A happy and prosperous new year for the nation's capital city? not likely!
This page was updated on Aug 5, 2005