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Opinion: The Politics of Change

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Opinion: The Politics of Change

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Are DC Speed Camera Fines Too High?

Speed cameras are everywhere in the District, but are the fines too high? News 4's Tom Sherwood talked to one D.C. Council member who's looking to lower the fines for drivers.
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Many people get the sense that the District of Columbia is changing economically, demographically and politically. Some fear it, some welcome it and some just feel it.

Now, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer has quantified it.

In its August economic and revenue trends report, the office says the city has “experienced a remarkable level of growth” since 2000. That growth was driven by young professional people in their 20s moving into “core” neighborhoods of the city.

The demographics are fueling construction of more housing and rising rents, not always a good thing for people struggling to find a place to live or to remain where they are.

The report says, “These same features have the potential to alter the demand structure for public services,” meaning in part that as the city becomes wealthier there could be clashes over what and how many services the city should provide.

The report says that in the 10-year period, every neighborhood in the District experienced growth except for the suburb-like, tranquil communities of Chevy Chase and Forest Hills. There are few if any condos or rental buildings being constructed in those neighborhoods to allow for growth.

Overall, condominium sales prices have rebounded from the 2008 recession, when prices dropped as much as 13 percent, or about $52,000. The report says July 2012 condo sales were up nearly 20 percent over the previous year. Prices for single-family homes have recovered similarly.

• Speed camera update. Ward 6 D.C. Council member Tommy Wells was scheduled to hold a community discussion Tuesday on the city’s $50 million speed camera operation. Wells has said he believes the ladder of fines ranging from $75 up to $250 is too steep. Montgomery County, for example, imposes a $40 fine.

But Wells told NBC4 on Monday that his timetable for changing the high fines won’t be as quick as he first thought. He had hoped to have legislation prepared this fall but says a thorough review means any changes likely won’t come until next year. One of the issues is finding ways to fill the budget gap if the fine revenue goes down.

Just as importantly, Wells gave support to the many citizens who believe the city uses speed cameras just to raise general revenues, not for public safety. He said the stark fine increases began under former Mayor Adrian Fenty and have been continued under Mayor Vincent Gray.

“Really, the ticketing situation in D.C. has gotten out of hand,” he told NBC4. “There’s no need for having the souped-up fines that we have. … The fines have really gotten to be just a way to balance the budget.”

• DC Vote and NAACP. Benjamin Jealous, the national president of the NAACP, says his organization stands ready to help District citizens gain voting rights in Congress or statehood.

Appearing on the WAMU 88.5 Politics Hour last Friday, Jealous said he agreed that District voting rights activists need to be more aggressive.

“As soon as they’re ready,” he said of groups like DC Vote, “we’re willing to help across the country [with a] more militant and aggressive phase.”

Some activists say the NAACP has been cool to previous approaches, but Jealous’s comments to show host Kojo Nnamdi indicate a newly opened door.

Ilir Zherka, who runs DC Vote, also appeared on the program. He said his group has employed a number of aggressive tactics, but with little media attention. He welcomed the interest of the national NAACP and acknowledged that a more activist campaign should be considered.

“We do need something bigger and more sustaining than the efforts we’ve had over the last year plus,” Zherka said.

• Wade in the water. That’s an old spiritual song with roots in slavery.

The song’s encouraging cadence came to mind as your Notebook looked upon the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool now that it is finally refilled after an extensive, $34 million restoration effort that began in 2010. The National Park Service is hoping to have a soft opening of the area around the reflecting pool this Labor Day weekend.

Although wading in the memorial’s water is discouraged now, years ago the pool was the scene of frolicking and wintertime ice skating.

First constructed in the 1920s, the pool always leaked badly because it was laid upon soft former marshland. It also lacked a filtration system so it had to be emptied and cleaned twice a year. That meant replacing 6.7 million gallons of water.

The new pool is now shallower, holding only 4 million gallons of water.

The reflecting pool is stabilized, clean and beautiful.

Play tourist in the city and visit it again.

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