Vincent Gray is not even mayor yet and he’s taking control.
This week, Gray asked Mayor Adrian Fenty to impose a hiring and spending freeze right away to stop what Gray fears could be “runaway” budgets.
And Fenty issued the order effective Wednesday, just 48 hours after Gray asked for it.
“The budget problem is quite serious,” said D.C. Council Finance and Revenue Committee Chair Jack Evans. “And the difference this year is we have no reserves left.”
Evans appeared with Gray at a Monday news conference during which Gray addressed the gloomy budget news and -- in a switch from Fenty -- good-naturedly took a variety of questions from reporters.
The budget red ink officially is at $175 million. Of that, $100 million is lost revenue from lower commercial and real estate taxes, as well as a slump in sales taxes. People, including tourists, are just not spending the way they were.
Neither Gray nor Evans offered any optimism for the current fiscal year or 2012 and beyond. “We’re already starting to look at fiscal year 2012 … the news doesn’t get any better,” Gray said. “We’ve not only cut to the bone … I think we’re down in to the bone marrow at this stage.”
We asked Evans if there was any sense that the economy might improve. Not really, he said, for at least two or three years. “That is a little scary,” he said.
Gray’s eagerness to tackle the budget problem -- he could let Fenty wrestle with the immediate cuts -- is an indication that the mayor-to-be wants to set a strong tone for citizens and the business community.
He’s off to a good start.
• A real freeze?
The mayor’s order issued Monday is three pages long. It includes a variety of exemptions and caveats. It allows for spending 100 percent of federal funds. Some agencies are exempt from the 10 percent budget cut. There are provisions for appeal. In short, the freeze is imposed but a good bureaucrat could probably find ways around some of the limitations.
Here’s an example: It’s common practice for political appointees loyal to an outgoing mayor (like Fenty) to try to latch onto a nonpolitical government job. It will be harder with the freeze for Fenty to place such persons. But expect some of this to happen regardless.
• Write-in Fenty?
There’s a continuing effort by some citizens to gin up a write-in campaign for Fenty in the Nov. 2 general election. In addition to a website, someone has printed postcard-size campaign fliers.
Fenty has said publicly he isn’t supporting this effort, and he’s told Gray the same thing. But the effort isn’t going away. Maybe it’s time for Fenty to make a definitive statement again saying he wants no part of it.
• Going up! Finally?
Nothing has slumped in this bad economy like the city’s straggling effort to build a new convention center hotel.
Well, finally, it may be happening. The Washington Convention and Sports Authority said it’s providing limited construction access to the site on the northwest corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Ninth Street NW.
That will allow crews to do “preliminary site remediation” in anticipation of building the 1,175-room Marriott Marquis.
Gregory O’Dell, who runs the city’s convention business, can finally smile. In addition to running the convention center, he’s been trying mightily to move the hotel along. The District has lost out on a number of big conventions that require a major hotel adjacent to the convention site -- there’s only so much walking and shuttle-bus stuff that conventioneers will tolerate.
The new hotel should have been built eight years ago when the convention center was being constructed, but a variety of political and economic issues got in the way.
Though the “new” convention center is not so new anymore, it still wins praise for clean, spacious open lines. And now, it will get its complementary hotel. Watch for the dirt to fly around the site soon and expect a formal groundbreaking in the next few weeks.
The only bad news is that it will take nearly four years to build the huge hotel. That means the city can’t start booking conventions with the hotel available until 2014.
• A correction.
Last week, the column began with the first sentence mistakenly saying that Barack Obama won the presidency in 2006. Of course, it was 2008. It just feels like to some he’s been in office since 2006. We apologize for the error.