District residents have varying sentiments regarding the City Council’s proposed budget, especially a controversial move to curb spending on welfare benefits.

During a Nov. 30 hearing, residents representing organizations ranging from neighborhood associations to nonprofit advocacy groups and a panel of District government workers heard how the city faces a $188 million budget shortfall that could escalate to more than $400 million over the next two years.

Mayor-elect Vincent Gray, who takes over the helm Jan. 2, warned that residents citywide would take a hit while he pulls the budget into perspective.

The outgoing council chairman said he is considering cuts in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget submitted by Mayor Adrian Fenty that would affect the quality of meals served to students in the city’s public schools. And, with an eye to reining in spending—while curtailing taxes—even cuts to District workers’ salaries are possible.

Gray “has repeatedly warned residents that filling the budget deficit would be painful because everything had to be on the table in order to fill the large gap,” Doxie McCoy, his office spokeswoman, told the AFRO in an e-mailed statement.

“After receiving the mayor’s budget plan, the Council acted on the mayor’s cuts in a responsible and sensitive manner, keeping some of the cuts, while restoring or adjusting others.”

Among the more heatedly debated proposals is a measure that would end welfare clients’ payments after five years. In November, Fenty proposed reducing those checks by 20 percent. However, in a move surprising to some, Gray’s plans calls for long-term recipients to lose 40 percent of their monthly benefits next year, with decreases continuing up to 60 percent by 2013.

Currently, 17,000 District households receive public assistance checks – which average $370 a month – and 40 percent of recipients have received benefits for more than five years.

But limits for long-term Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients is consistent with federal regulations, McCoy said. “The Council also added funding for job training for recipients who might lose benefits to help them return to the workforce,” she said.

Ed Lazere, executive director of the District-based Fiscal Policy Institute, said such tough budget choices are unavoidable. Even cutting child care—though Gray has said preserving programs for children and the unemployed are among his top budget priorities—could be part of a “comprehensive” approach to saving money and reducing joblessness.

However, If Gray plans to make widespread cuts, he needs to tread carefully, said Ward 5 resident Kathy Henderson, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner.

“I would suggest that Mr. Gray be really balanced in his efforts to save the city money while eliminating programs,” Henderson said. “He needs to be very mindful that programs that uplift a large segment of the city need not be cut, as we already have a great divide in D.C. which starts and ends in wards 5,7 and 8, which are largely populated by African Americans.”

According to Henderson, those communities have some of the highest rates of unemployed residents citywide and most are also undereducated. “So we want to make sure that any programs or services that are cut are not going to put people in wards 5, 7 and 8 in a deeper economic hole,” she said.
Michael Fauntroy, a George Mason University public policy analyst, said while many of the cuts will impact African-American residents, Gray’s options are limited.

“The hole is so deep that everyone is going to have to feel some pain,” Fauntroy said, “and I don’t think that’s avoidable. And I don’t necessarily think it’s a negative reflection on because he’s being upfront and honest about it.”

On the other hand, Fauntroy said he had been hearing “astronomical numbers” in terms of the budget deficit but believes the District cannot try to tax its way out of the situation.

“There has to be a combination of ways to deal with the deficit rather than just focusing on cutting taxes,” he said.

“There has to be cuts across the board.”

But according to Ward 5 Councilman Harry Thomas, as a resident of Ward 7 Gray understands the importance of maintaining programs and services targeted at the city’s most needy residents.

“I think that what Mr. Gray is doing is looking more at long-term solutions to solve a lot of issues of a budget that was handed down to the council with less than a week to try addresses its findings,” Thomas said. “So, we’re committed to finding dollars to support the most vulnerable programs and services long-term, like a subsidy program for grandparents who take care of their grandchildren, which, along with other safety net projects, has already been restored.”