Monday, October 5, 2015
Media Source: 
WAMU Radio (DC)
Rebecca Sheir

If you wander past the digital “D.C. Residents Federal Tax Dollars Paid” screen flashing outside the John A. Wilson Building, you’ll see that these days, those dollars of taxation-without-representation number in the three billions.

They’re just one reminder, as D.C. Council memberDavid Grosso (I-At Large) puts it “about how we’re really treated as a second-class jurisdiction in this country, a reminder of the fact that we don’t have full home rule here in D.C.”

Another reminder, he says — and one he’s been fighting lately to change — is about money. But it’s also about time.

It’s the District’s fiscal year. Now, you might not think shifting the city’s budgeting calendar would be a rallying cry for independence. But for Grosso, the fiscal year has both symbolic and practical implications.

You see, for most states and cities, the fiscal year runs July through June, coinciding with the school year. But because of D.C.’s ties to the federal government, we operate on the fed’s fiscal year: October through September. Meaning for us, the new fiscal year just began.

And that, says Grosso — who chairs the council's education committee — is a problem.

“Because school starts in August,” he explains. “So people in the system — the parents, the teachers, the school administrators — don’t really know what their budget is. It’s not clear, because it’s such a jumbled mess in when we have to do everything.”

Which is why — at the end of September — Grosso’s D.C. Fiscal Year Designation Amendment Act of 2015 was referred to the Committee of the Whole. This legislation would align D.C.’s fiscal year with the school year — so, July through June.

And that change would delight D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Education, Jennie Niles.

“We need to do the best for our children,” she says. “And the last thing we need is crazy timelines to be the hurdle.”

As for the current “crazy timeline,” she says, “it doesn’t sync up to the way we need to do planning for our kids. And we need to do that planning in the spring before the school year, and certainly in the summer.”

But that can be tough when you don’t know how much money is coming in until a month or so after the new school year starts.

“We have grants, local grants, that aren’t available until October 1,” she explains. “So, take for instance, there’s going to be a new early-literacy grant that’s available this coming year. The Office of the State Superintendent can’t put out the opportunity for it until after October. Which means that it doesn’t align with getting off to the school year.”

The reason, she says, is schools that receive that grant “will maybe be able to start in January.”

Another consequence of the October-through-September schedule is that the District must request an advance to the school system ahead of each fiscal year.

“While we have figured out how to pay schools in a way that doesn’t prevent them from spending money before October 1 — which is important because we have lots of expenses in schools before October 1 — it would be infinitely simpler to have the fiscal year match school year, so that we’re not trying to do all these wacky workarounds,” Niles says.

But ask the District’s Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt how “infinitely simple” it would be to change D.C.,’s fiscal year, and he says, flat-out: “It would be very complicated.

“And,” he adds, “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, as my mother told me years ago!”

Especially since it’ll cost the District a pretty penny, he says: “Tens of millions of dollars,” in fact.

For one thing, D.C. would have to replace every piece of financial software it uses. It’d have to change how it assesses property, when its taxes are due. Then we have the issue of contracts and bonds.

“All the contracts that go in the fiscal year would have to be modified, and amended, and maybe renegotiated,” DeWitt explains. “[And] the $9.5 billion in debt that we have for the bonds that we’ve sold to the market are based on that fiscal year. So those documents would have to be redone. In some cases, we may have to refinance the debt in order to redo those bonds.”

But even if Jeffrey DeWitt has reservations about D.C. changing its fiscal year the former Arizonan says he understands how the change could help D.C. show its independence.

“I get the long battle that the District has had,” he says. “And I’m a citizen of the District now, too. And I, whenever I left Arizona, I had a senate [sic] and representative whenever I voted. I don’t have that now. So I totally respect and get it.”

Someone else who “totally respects and gets it” — both personally and professionally — is Eleanor Holmes Norton, now in her thirteenth term as the non-voting Congresswoman for the District of Columbia.

“We should be on the same fiscal year as every other state and jurisdiction,” Norton says. “At least when it comes to their own local matters, of which there is nothing more important than the opening of school, they have chosen the fiscal year that suits them best.”

And Washington, D.C., would get to choose the fiscal year that suits it best under the Budget Autonomy Act. In a2013 referendum, 83 percent of D.C. voters approved the legislation, which would give the District more control over the local budget, while giving Congress less.

The Budget Autonomy Act is tied up in legal issues right now. But Norton believes it’s the key to D.C. declaring its fiscal-year independence — moreso, even, than the Fiscal Year Designation Amendment Act proposed by her former chief counsel, David Grosso.

“I can understand why the council member, my good friend, Mr. Grosso, who has jurisdiction over the schools, wants to get us aligned with the fiscal year that benefits the schools,” she says. “I think he would agree — indeed, he’s worked here in the Congress with me — that the preferable alternative would be to get budget autonomy and then let the District decide when it wants its fiscal year to begin and end.”

Grosso does acknowledge that until the legal uncertainties of the Budget Autonomy Act are resolved, changing D.C.’s fiscal year might not be in the cards in the near future — especially given those costs CFO Jeffrey DeWitt is so worried about.

“He’s told me it’ll cost millions of dollars,” Grosso says. “But the fact is that we have a $1.8 billion surplus in D.C. If that is a priority for us, then I think it’s something we should do.”

But until we do, Grosso is determined to keep the conversation going. For one thing, he says, it will benefit the District of Columbia.

“It’s a statement to the federal government, every time we talk about this, every time we engage in this conversation, that we’re not treated equally, we’re not treated fairly,” he explains.

Additionally, he adds, continuing to talk about changing D.C.’s fiscal year is important for the District’s students, teachers and administrators.

“I have real compassion, and I’m really worried about them,” he says. “So I’m always trying to do what I can to make it better for the schools. Maybe we won’t be able to do it overnight, but we will be ready when the time has come.”