D.C. Gets a Control Board

April 12, 1995

The shape of things to come is becoming clearer for the financially strapped District of Columbia, which faces a projected budget shortfall of $722 million. Congress has approved legislation creating a federally appointed financial control board to force major cuts in district spending and with the power to overrule decisions by Mayor Marion S. Barry and the City Council.

The legislation further narrows the limited home rule Congress granted the District in 1973. Even officials who remain optimistic about D.C.'s long-term prospects concede it will have to live with a major loss of autonomy into the next century.

Though the House and Senate versions differ in details, the proposed five-member financial control board would have broad authority to set priorities, hire and fire workers and oversee major changes in District government policies and operations. The legislation also would create a powerful chief financial officer to handle the city's money on a daily basis and require the District to balance its budget over four years. The board and the financial chief would have to clear major changes with Congress -- but not with the city's elected officials.

Though Washington's troubles are largely the result of shortsighted policies by Mr. Barry and former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, the city suffered from the same combination of declining revenues and rising costs that has impoverished other U.S. cities. The deep structural problems that bedevil D.C. differ only in degree from those in many other aging urban communities, including Baltimore.

Things have reached the point where Congress has no choice but to impose discipline. It probably can't resist the temptation to use the occasion to score partisan political points against the overwhelmingly Democratic-voting District. But then it should get busy devising a realistic urban policy that addresses the fundamental problems all cities confront today.

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