(Washington, DC) – Today, Mayor Muriel Bowser testified in support of her Fiscal Year 2024 Fair Shot Budget.
Below is the Mayor’s full testimony, as delivered:
Good afternoon, Chairman Mendelson and members of the Council. I’m Muriel Bowser, Mayor of Washington, DC. I am pleased to testify today on my Fiscal Year 2024 Fair Shot Budget.
During last year’s budget presentation, we spoke about how we may never fully understand the ways the pandemic has changed our lives. And while that is true today, and remains true today, it is also fair to say that a year later, we do have a clearer picture of what has changed and where our city stands.
I am proud to be able to say with confidence, and especially delivering this budget to you, that the state of our finances and that the state of Washington, DC is strong.
This is our 28th consecutive balanced budget. We continue to have a triple-A bond rating. We continue to be a donor state, meaning we give more to the federal government than we get back, and our finances continue to be the envy of jurisdictions across the country.
And each of you knows how we got to this point: we have a long history of balanced budgets and clean audits. By fully funding our pensions and retirement plans. By building up strong reserves. And you will remember that back in January 2020, for the first time in District history, we achieved 60 days of cash on hand. Three years and one global pandemic later, we still have a 60-day operating reserve.
In 2018, I was very proud when Moody’s upgraded our general obligation bonds to the highest possible rating. In just over 20 years, DC went from a junk-bond status to a triple-A rating. For our city and residents, a strong bond rating means we can borrow more cost effectively and make bigger capital investments. More schools, better transportation, more recreation centers—the things that attract people to live in our city and start businesses here.
In addition to responsible budgeting, growing our tax base, and prioritizing our infrastructure, the renaissance of our city can be directly tied to two commitments we made to DC residents in the early 2000s: a commitment to transform our public school system and a commitment to invest more in public safety.
In recent years, we’ve built on the tremendous progress of our public schools by expanding access to early learning opportunities and reimagining high school for our older students. We continue to attract and retain world-class educators; and we don’t just say this – we have performance data that shows how many effective and highly effective teachers are teaching in our classrooms.
Today, our public school enrollment is the highest it has been since the Office of the State Superintendent of Education began their count in 2007. We are also the only public school district in the region to grow our enrollment from pre-pandemic levels this school year.
This budget builds on the progress in our schools. It funds our historic contract with the Washington Teachers’ Union. It includes $145 million to support a 5% increase to the foundation of the UPSFF. It also includes a $5 million down payment on expanded free after school, which will be used to begin planning and implementing “My Afterschool DC.”
This budget also builds on the investments we’ve made in public safety over the past 20 years. In recent years, I’ve raised concerns about staffing issues and our ability to build on our public safety progress while appropriately addressing the growth of our city, attrition and retirement, and changing crime trends post-COVID.
This budget includes $2.1 million and 18 additional staff to support civilianization efforts, which will also reduce the need for sworn officers to cover roles and duties that can be performed by civilians. With this budget, we also answered the calls of school leaders and proposed to repeal the elimination of School Resource Officers. It includes $1.2 million for a new DC Paramedic School, similar to our MPD and Fire cadet programs. And this budget includes a tremendous investment in transforming the DC Jail, putting us on track to break ground before the end of my third term.
Of course, over the years, we were investing in schools and public safety, and as those investments yielded more prosperity for the city, we were also able to make other big investments.
We rebuilt or modernized 24 of 26 libraries, including the beautiful Martin Luther King Memorial Library, making our DC Public Library system one of the most forward-thinking systems in nation.
We also drove down family homelessness by 78% in six years; in part, by completely rebuilding our family shelter system, both the physical system and the system of care.
By creating more equitable access to in-demand jobs, investing in more earn and learn programs, and supporting meaningful connections between employers and job-seekers, we’ve also been able to drive down unemployment rates to record lows, especially in Wards 7 and 8. In the past eight years, and with your support, we drove down the unemployment rate in Ward 7 from 12.9% to 7.2%; and in Ward 8, we drove down the unemployment rate from 16.1% to 8.8%. The overall unemployment rate, which peaked at 11.2% during the pandemic, is now down to 4.4%.
In the past several weeks, we have heard from some members of Congress a narrative about Washington, DC that is simply not true. The truth is what I’ve just laid out: that Washington, DC is a world-class city, with amazing people, a responsible local government, and a better ability to balance budgets than the Congress of the United States.
And we will continue to make our city stronger.
Right now, we must make it a priority to make sure we have a strong and growing economy. Through investments in our comeback, especially in our downtown, we can and will get to the other side of this financial storm. By going all in on our Housing in Downtown program, increasing our investment FY28 from $6.8 million to $41 million, we can add 15,000 residents and transform downtown into the mixed-use neighborhood and bring back the vibrancy that we all miss and need.
With $1.5 million we add a Festival Fund; with investments we have transformed K Street and a renovated Farragut Square; we continue to create destinations downtown and make it easier to reach them. And while we continue to get dollars out the door from our Vitality Fund, we are also making it easier to attract and retain businesses by subsidizing the cost of office space renovations with a $1.5 million Creative and Open Space Modernization fund. The success of downtown is critical to the success of our city, and this budget reflects that.
This is a moment that requires strategy and discipline.
While our financial position has increased every year, this is the first time since 2009, outside of the COVID years, that our revenues have gone down. It is not a situation that we can tax or one-time our way out of. We have to work across the financial plan, and we have to build sustainability and resiliency into our process.
I want to remind all of us that tough choices in the short-term mean that in the long-term we can make bigger and bolder investments in our residents and neighborhoods.
You will notice that a focus of my fiscal 24 budget is on how we put more dollars and keep more dollars in the pockets of DC residents. Just like the District is feeling inflation, so are our residents; and I am proud of my budget and my agency teams for finding creative ways to save people money in a tight year.
The $900,000 investment leverages $90 million of medical debt relief for approximately 90,000 DC residents; $90 million dollars back in residents’ pockets.
With new workforce programs, like a new teacher apprenticeship program, we will create a pipeline for getting DC residents into middle-class jobs. These programs will be bolstered by $2.5 million going to DCHR, to create an incentive plan for the recruitment and retention fund for hard to fill positions at DC Government, including 911 call takers and social workers. These programs and investments mean more DC residents earning middle-class salaries; more money in their pockets, more money in their bank accounts.
With this budget, we are also raising the eligibility for the childcare subsidy from 250% of the federal poverty level to 300%. I have made it a priority to invest in making childcare and early learning opportunities more affordable and more accessible, and that’s for good reason – affordable, accessible childcare benefits both children and parents, often moms, and means more people will choose to live and stay in DC. By changing the eligibility standard, we estimate that families of 2,200 children will become newly eligible for the subsidy. That means about 21,000 children, or 43% of the children who are zero to six in DC will be eligible for subsidized childcare.
So, again, I want to reiterate that this budget is tighter than our past few budgets. It makes big investments in our residents, employees, and our union partners. And it builds on the programs and strategies that we know work for our community.
There are of course adjustments in some programs, it’s been said that there are cuts to this and cuts to that. I might put it differently – that the budget is balanced by adjusting this and adjusting that. $1.7 billion dollars is made up by making tough choices.
Part of this, my budget team – and I want to acknowledge the city administrator and budget director who sit to my right, and of course our team at the CFO’s office, which is now your team at the CFO’s office for the remainder of this process – part of this tight budget work was to right-size programs and to recognize that some programs are working better than others. Part of it was to recalibrate. There were some programs that were funded at variously high levels during the pandemic to address the needs during the pandemic, and there were other one time choices that you made last year that also have to be recalibrated this year. There were some programs that were funded by the federal government and we recognize that those funds simply won’t exist beyond this year. This is our reality right now.
So, Mr. Chairman, I hope this is also a message that you can deliver to the Congress next week. DC is doing just fine, in fact, we’re doing more than fine. As the Councilmember said: we are strong. If the Congress wants to make us stronger I have some ideas for them. They can get rid of the $10,000 cap on the SALT deduction, which specifically targets middle class workers. Removing the cap is an easy way to support teachers, police officers, and other public servants who serve in cities and states across the country.
The Congress can help us understand the telework policy and help us get workers back downtown on a more consistent basis. That work can also include delivering on a thoughtful strategy for repurposing some space. They can also help us, and other urban areas, avoid the $250 million transit cliff that Metro expects next year, which would be on us to pay. And they can address the needs of travelers coming to and through our nation’s capital by supporting appropriations for Union Station.
If they want to zero in on public safety, which we of course are perfectly focused on, then the Congress should fund more District prosecutors at the United States Attorney Office, and not just to deal with the January 6th cases. If they are concerned about the DC Jail, they can make an appropriation to help advance the construction of a new DC Jail, which we have entirely funded in this financial plan. They should also do what Americans across the country are begging for, and that is to work on commonsense gun reforms.
So, we join you in telling the Congress not to meddle in our affairs, but to focus on the things that we can partner on together, including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. We know that when we work across the aisle, across the branches, that helps cities and states get stuff done.
So, I look forward to a robust budget process, I recognize that there are tough questions and disagreements perhaps about our approach to the necessary cuts. But I know I don’t have to remind you that you too will have to make necessary cuts. You will agree with some, you won’t agree with others, but at the end of the day I firmly believe that we are making sound investments in our recovery and the people of the District of Columbia.
The question was asked: Are we focusing on raising revenues or focusing on our people? And the answer is yes, and yes. We are focused on both. Because we have to have revenues to invest in our people. Part of this discussion that is difficult that we are beginning to see now, which we all saw coming, is when commercial property values go down we have less money. And yes, most of those commercial properties are in the downtown in Ward 2, but the priorities are across all eight wards. I know that we will be disciplined in our approaches and that we will be kind in our debate, and I look forward to your questions.