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Harry Jaffe: D.C.'s fat surplus should go to cops and kids

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe

It's become a ritual: Every year, D.C. politicians tighten the government's fiscal belts only to be told the city's running a surplus.

This causes much criticism and consternation. Council members, notably at-large member David Catania, bridle at the process. He excoriates Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi and insinuates Gandhi cannot count -- and worse.

Prepare yourself for one of the most contentious rounds of the surplus ritual. Never will so much money cause so much recrimination and hand-wringing!

The CFO has been crunching revenue and spending numbers. Gandhi is scheduled to let Mayor Vince Gray know the accounting in two weeks or so. The public might hear the results officially when Gray and Gandhi hold a press conference scheduled for Jan. 29 to unveil the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for 2012.

Based on conversations with sources in the executive and legislative branches, I hear the surplus could exceed $400 million. About half of that extra cash is due to underspending by the government; the other $200 million or more has come to the city by way of additional revenue, notably commercial real estate fees and taxes. And tickets from speed cameras.

Once again, Gandhi's bean counters will have used conservative estimates for spending and revenue; once again, the city will have a surplus. Spin it any way you wish, but the District has a sweet problem that makes it the envy of cities facing cutbacks or bankruptcy.

How to spend the extra dough? Allow me to start the bidding.

- Reward the cops and firemen for keeping the city safe and free of major conflagrations. Neither the police nor firefighters have had a contract in many years. The police have been without a raise for five years.

"I absolutely want them to have a contract," says Tommy Wells, incoming Judiciary Committee chair. "We need to get our police a pay increase. It's a high priority for me."

Mayor Gray wants more cops, Wells wants to increase their pay, the money's there. Just do it.

- Put $50 million into athletic programs for kids. Fix up more fields and recreation centers. Use another $50 million to lengthen the school day and year.

- Plough $50 million into the community college for job training. Jobs in health care and information technology are bountiful in D.C., but our residents are not prepared to fill them.

- How about a tax cut for small businesses? The District could compete better with the suburbs by lowering the costs of doing business here.

A million here, a million there. If there's any extra, plunk it into the rainy day fund. That should become part of the ritual.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonian.com.

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