D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser presents her fiscal year 2018 budget to the D.C. Council.
credit: DC Mayor's Office Youtube Channel

Flaunting the title “D.C. Values in Action: A Roadmap to Inclusive Prosperity,” Mayor Muriel Bowser’s $13.8 billion 2018 budget proposal has garnered mixed reviews from government officials and advocacy groups.

Highlighting D.C.’s “largest public education budget ever,” a “historic investment in affordable housing,” employment and ending homelessness — the FY18 budget aims to include all District residents in the city’s recent prosperity, Bowser said at an April 6 press briefing.

“We have the strongest finances in the city’s history right now,” Bowser said. “We’re still growing.”

Planning to invest $1.58 billion in public education, Bowser increased the sector’s funding by $105 million from FY17. Modernizing public schools over the next six years would be funded by an additional $1.3 billion from the FY18 budget.

Charter schools would receive 2.2 percent more resources per pupil to provide “a safe, welcoming learning environment,” according to Bowser’s April 6 testimony before the D.C. Council. Public school per-pupil funding would see a 1.5 percent increase.

School enrollment in D.C. will increase by an estimated 3,634 students next academic year, according to budget analysis conducted by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI). Ninety-four percent of new students are expected to enroll in charters and 6 percent in public schools.

The proposal’s increased public school funding falls 14 percent below what is considered necessary by the Finance Project’s 2013 adequacy study on D.C. education.

Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, stressed the importance of early childhood intervention during a March 30 conference call. Intervening early can prevent developmental delays that could hinder children from performing at the same level as their peers.

Bowser unveiled her administration’s plan for increased investment in affordable child care on April 5. The $15.3 million commitment would increase D.C. residents’ access to high-quality infant and child care.

Over three years, the initiative would increase the capacity of local infant and toddler care programs by 1,300 seats. Additionally, three new sites in city-owned buildings will be leased to private child care providers and support will be given to 300 District residents to become certified infant and toddler educators.

“This new investment would give more children and families access to the physical, social, emotional and intellectual development opportunities high-quality child care provides,” said Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles in a press release.

While the initiative increases the capacity for child care programs, the budget does not call for improved access to affordable care for low-income families, according to DCFPI.

During the March 30 conference call, DCFPI Executive Director Ed Lazere voiced concerns on the District’s current Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) plan. The rigid D.C. time limit for the program cuts families off from assistance after five years, according to Lazere.

“You could be homeless, you could be experiencing domestic violence, you could be caring for a relative with a disability,” Lazere said. “You lose assistance and you can never get back on.”

A working group convened by the mayor last year developed a recommendation for how D.C.’s TANF program would operate in coming years. Lazere, who took part in the working group, said the suggested plan would allocate 80 percent of funds to child care and the remaining 20 percent to the parents if they met the requirements outlined in their TANF plan.

The new TANF policy will be executed using an $8.1 million portion of the FY18 budget. It will use local funds to continue cash assistance under the program. The mayor proposes an even split of the funds between child care and the parents’ benefits. The DCFPI argues this plan would not provide adequate funding to ensure children’s basic needs are met.

Under the current budget, families receiving TANF benefits for less than 60 months receive an average benefit of $410 a month, while those receiving benefits for more than 60 months receive an average of $150 a month.

With the FY18 budget, all families meeting TANF requirements — for less or more than 60 months — would receive an average of $465 a month with a 13.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment.

Family assistance will not be reduced after 60 months under the new plan.

“There’s nothing in the data that shows 60 months in somebody’s lifetime is the right number, that if you give someone cash assistance for 60 months, they should be able to do everything that would cause them to never need to rely on that kind of a safety net again,” D.C.’s Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Laura Zeilinger said at an April 13 budget briefing.

Bowser proposed another $100 million for the Housing Production Trust Fund, as she did in her previous two budgets. A new $10 million is pledged for an affordable housing preservation fund.

An additional $15.2 million would fund the next phase of Homeward D.C., the Interagency Council on Homelessness’ (ICH) five-year plan to end long-term homelessness in the District.

This investment — $8.8 million from the DHS and $6.3 million from D.C. Housing Authority — would add 130 rapid rehousing units, 117 permanent supportive housing units and 85 targeted affordable housing units for families, as well as 162 permanent supportive housing units and 100 targeted affordable housing units for individuals.

The portion of the budget allocated to permanent supportive housing for singles only meets 30 percent of what is needed to end chronic homelessness, while the targeted affordable housing budget meets 24 percent of the units needed in FY18, according to the DCFPI.

Proposed investments in family housing units would only meet about 40 percent of the permanent supportive housing and targeted affordable housing needed to meet the ICH’s strategic plan goals, the DCFPI analysis said.

Bowser believes affordable housing could help reduce homelessness in D.C.

“The fact is that a lot of people in our system, they don’t need permanent supportive housing,” Bowser said at the April 6 press briefing. “They need affordable housing.”

The budget does not provide additional rental assistance resources needed by D.C.’s poorest families to find affordable housing, however.

To improve the homeless crisis response, Bowser proposed $36.4 million to expand shelter hours, improve family case management, offer meals at shelters and improve shelters’ janitorial services.

Year-round shelter access no longer depends on federal funds. Federal TANF money previously filled gaps in D.C.’s family homelessness budget, particularly to fund emergency shelters and motels in the winter hypothermia season. This federal funding is no longer available.

Sixteen million dollars of the budget would be dedicated to emergency family shelters in motels. The District hopes to reduce motel expenditures over the next two years, Zeilinger said.

The proposal allots $50 million over the next 4 years to replace D.C. General Family Shelter and shelter units lost when a provider lost a building’s lease.

The mayor’s budget proposes $36.7 million for employment initiatives. It introduces a new infrastructure academy to be built on Ward 8’s Saint Elizabeth’s East Campus to provide job training in sectors such as energy efficiency, logistics, transportation and utilities. The budget proposes $16.75 million to build the facility by 2021.

Bowser hopes to reduce unemployment for people of color, Ward 7 and 8 residents and those without high school diplomas. The Ward 3 unemployment rate is 4.2 percent, while Ward 8 has a 12.5 percent unemployment rate.

The budget fails to extend the Kids Ride Free Program, which covers transportation costs for adult learners and D.C.’s re-engaging youth. Evidence supports that transportation costs prevent students from regularly attending class, and the Deputy Mayor for Education recommends free public transportation for adult students, according to the DCFPI.

The FY18 plan also completes a strategy developed by the Tax Revision Commission to lower the tax burden on District individuals, families and business. It would provide $60 million in relief for “low- and moderate-income” residents, $28 million for D.C.-based businesses and $12 million for “higher-income” residents, according to Bowser’s April 6 testimony before the D.C. Council.

The tax cut proposal has been widely criticized for not placing a higher focus on sectors of need in the District. However, Bowser has said repeatedly that she would only consider delaying the tax cuts if she felt her administration could not meet the other goals she has committed to.

“Instead of devoting our money to housing, schools and other services, the budget puts tax cuts first,” Lazere said in a statement. “Mayor Bowser’s budget does not live up to her own goal of ‘inclusive prosperity’ — ensuring that all D.C. residents benefit from our growing economy — and we call on the council to do more.”

Despite the District finishing FY17 with a $128 million surplus, Councilmembers Trayon White (D-Ward 8) and Robert White Jr. (D-At-Large) said the proposal lacks funding for the city’s poorest residents.

Former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, a Ward 7 councilmember whom Bowser defeated in the 2014 mayoral race, said Bowser’s budget underinvests in education, health care and other social services.

“This budget is not a roadmap to inclusive prosperity,” he said. “It is a path that leads to nowhere.”

Gray and Bowser  disagreed over Ward 8’s United Medical Center, which is owned by the city. Gray suggests an additional $150 million above Bowser’s proposed $180 million for the project.

More than 90 advocacy groups and social service providers sent a letter to Bowser on March 24 demanding that she put the tax cuts on hold and instead invest in combating homelessness, providing affordable housing and improving infrastructure. The letter also requests Bowser create a budget cushion to protect against potential federal cuts under the Trump administration.

The D.C. Council will review the budget proposal and ask for public feedback before voting on it in late May.