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How would you spend DC's surplus?

The District's budget has a $417 million surplus. If you were on the DC Council, what would you do with it?

Photo by aresauburn™ on Flickr.

Let's Choose DC (a partnership of Greater Greater Washington, DCist, and PoPville) asked the 8 candidates for the April 23 at-large special election. All replied except for Anita Bonds, and we have their responses online at

But first, we'd like to know what you think. When you start voting on Let's Choose DC, it will first ask you about a set of budget priorities, from the rainy-day fund to social services to tax cuts, which one or more candidates mentioned in their statements. After that, you can look at, and rate, individual candidate responses.

You can vote until midnight Monday, February 11. After that, we'll do some analysis to try to not only figure out whose responses was most popular, but how people with different sets of budget priorities felt about the candidates.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for the results of last week's question, on DC's growth, coming later this week.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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What to do with a windfall surplus? Easy, one word.


by Cyclone on Feb 6, 2013 1:34 pm • linkreport

Oh, wow, you finally got Michael Brown to respond. Ungrammatically, but still, it's a great start.

by Tom Veil on Feb 6, 2013 1:34 pm • linkreport


Only after the escalator to nowhere. Please have your priorities straight.

by Andrew on Feb 6, 2013 1:42 pm • linkreport

What about a zipline between Meridian Hill Park and the Washington Monument. That would be fun.

by Alan B. on Feb 6, 2013 1:44 pm • linkreport

Maybe a cable car system like San Francisco. You think we could bring that back? ;)

by MLD on Feb 6, 2013 2:02 pm • linkreport

I get that its hard to list all the choices we have, but how are schools not a choice on their own while green manufacturing is a choice?

OK maybe green manufacturing is not big in DC because we have not thrown enough money at it, but that last time I checked DC was not exactly a manufacturing hotbed.

Troubled students certainly need help, but all DC schools and kids need help.

by Turtleshell on Feb 6, 2013 2:09 pm • linkreport


Agree. The curious poll choices say a lot about the worldview of Let's Choose DC. Any opinion metric that follows must be viewed through that prism.

Kind of funny.

by JFMAMJJASON on Feb 6, 2013 2:24 pm • linkreport

Did you read the candidates' answers and respond to them? Because after doing that I realized the choices in the survey came from the candidates' answers.

That could be why specific choices were included or excluded.

by MLD on Feb 6, 2013 2:26 pm • linkreport

See this is the difference between DC and Fairfax. When we get a surplus we save it. When we save it we secure FAR higher credit ratings for our municipal bonds and general obligation bonds. When we get perfect scores on those ratings we are essentially given a free credit card with less than inflationary interest rates (less than 3%).

Essentially people would rather give Fairfax money than hold cash or bet on T-notes.

Because we can borrow money today for LESS than it costs tomorrow we can build things as we would like.

DC instead wants to take what money it has gotten in surplus and flush it down the drain to something that yes is important, but in the long run doesn't help the city OR those residents change their circumstances.

You want better schools? Save this money, improve your rating, and build the next school for 20% cheaper. Same thing goes for transportation projects, redevelopment initiatives, and green energy.

You dont help anyone by spending cash if your credit still is not prime.

by Tysons Engineer on Feb 6, 2013 2:32 pm • linkreport

@Tysons Engineer, the current plan is to save the entire surplus. It's the current candidates who are attacking this decision, and the low grades they're earning from me on this question reflects this.

by cminus on Feb 6, 2013 2:37 pm • linkreport

@MLD, OK that makes sense. I missed that line in David's intro and did not do my homework reading and voting on all the candidates responses....

by Turtleshell on Feb 6, 2013 2:40 pm • linkreport

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by B. Jones on Feb 6, 2013 2:41 pm • linkreport

A) Build two new streetcar lines in their entirety.


B) Approximately $659 refund to every man, woman and child who resides in the District.


C) Free admission and drinks for every resident at Stadium Club.

by H Street LL on Feb 6, 2013 2:41 pm • linkreport


DC has a 1.1 (I think) billion dollar rainy day fund, and Mayor Gray has proposed adding the 400 million to make it more than 1.5 billion.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 6, 2013 2:46 pm • linkreport

Pretty sure MLD got it exactly right. Kind of sad that none of them even touched on transportation.

by Alan B. on Feb 6, 2013 2:50 pm • linkreport

HA! Mike surely didn't write w/the best grammar in mind but he did answer the question in full.

Thought all the answers were relatively the same w/one exception

Patrick Mara - meh

by HogWash on Feb 6, 2013 2:52 pm • linkreport

Kind of sad that none of them even touched on transportation.

Well it would be kind of hard to do since you can't really spend a one-time sum on something that's going to incur lots of ongoing operating costs in the future.

But I could foresee a gripman training program run in conjunction with a DCPS high school to go along with our new cable cars!

by MLD on Feb 6, 2013 2:56 pm • linkreport

See this is the difference between DC and Fairfax

Ahh yes, the wonders of living in VA..where women's rights and voter suppression are never topics du jour.

by HogWash on Feb 6, 2013 2:58 pm • linkreport

Because there is no such thing as a capital cost for transportation infrastructure. You have to spend money maintaining and running a library too once you've built it. How is that different?

by Alan B. on Feb 6, 2013 3:10 pm • linkreport

The candidates' answers -- and my reactions to them -- show just how skewed things are in DC politics. I consider myself a liberal Democrat, and anywhere else in the country, I'd be extremely unlikely even to consider voting for a Republican. But not in DC. Of the candidates' answers, Patrick Mara's is the only one that makes any sense at all to me.

by Rob on Feb 6, 2013 3:28 pm • linkreport

That transportation or even infrastructure in general were *NOT* options on the survey is hugely disappointing. Whomever created the survey should know better.

by Froggie on Feb 6, 2013 3:31 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by thump on Feb 6, 2013 3:39 pm • linkreport

I didn't like any of the candidates' answers. I was hoping that someone would acknowledge that we need to prepare for the possibility of future federal spending cuts, and should save as much money as we can now. Setting something aside for a rainy day is smart strategy, especially when you see the weather report for tomorrow is suggesting a not-insignificant chance of rain.

Silverman gave the best answer of a bad lot, since she at least pointed out the problems of spending one-time money on open-ended programs/tax cuts, but was it too much to hope that the word "sequestration" would appear in someone's answer?

by cminus on Feb 6, 2013 4:08 pm • linkreport

@Froggie, the survey was created by taking the answers given by the actual candidates. Your disappointment is with them.

by cminus on Feb 6, 2013 4:10 pm • linkreport

@Froggie: What cminus said. I know a lot of stuff isn't on there; I didn't want to throw everything on and make the survey crazy long. This is really "which of the ideas the candidates suggested do you think are best." I thought about doing an "Other" but it was 2 am and that would have been a bunch of more coding.

by David Alpert on Feb 6, 2013 4:12 pm • linkreport

How about we give the $450 million back to the residents and businesses that were taxed in the first place, and allow them to spend it in the local economy as they see fit?

God forbid we know how to spend our own money better than government does.

by Jack J on Feb 6, 2013 4:15 pm • linkreport

@Jack J, that was pretty much Mara's answer. I'd find it more persuasive if the federal government weren't playing chicken with the economy at the moment; if that gets resolved without sending the local economy in a tailspin then Mara's answer looks a lot better, but it's too soon to tell whether the first half of that if/then statement will come to pass.

by cminus on Feb 6, 2013 4:21 pm • linkreport


I totally agree. These were all semi-scary, and I am quite liberal as well. At least most agreed we should save at least half, though I would certainly prefer if we are going to save only 1/2, that the other 1/2 is set aside to retire high interest bonds as they become due.

by Kyle-W on Feb 6, 2013 4:48 pm • linkreport

How about we give the $450 million back to the residents and businesses that were taxed in the first place, and allow them to spend it in the local economy as they see fit?

The issue there is it's impossible to mandate people spend it in the local economy at all.

I think the 1/2 approach works better because we're at least addressing some issue while saving the rest

by HogWash on Feb 6, 2013 4:54 pm • linkreport

Why is there nothing about infrastructure on there - roads, Metro? Seriously, the roads look more like a third-world country's roads, not the roads of the capital of the wealthiest country in the world.

by EdH on Feb 6, 2013 4:56 pm • linkreport

@Jack J: Because the residents-- myself included-- and the businesses can't build a streetcar line. Maybe DC can't either, but a guy can dream.

Besides, if I got a refund, I would save half and spend the other half to pay down my student loans. Neither would go to the local economy. Maybe that's unpatriotic of me; but if this is my own money we're talking about, and I know how best to use it, then that's where it will go.

by Steven Harrell on Feb 6, 2013 5:26 pm • linkreport

"The issue there is it's impossible to mandate people spend it in the local economy at all."

That's not an issue at all. Businesses and citizens can spend that money in or out of DC to their heart's content. The point is it's their money, not DC's.

Local economy as far as I'm concerned includes VA and MD, because the success of all 3 jurisdictions is interrelated.

But if someone wants to spend it online or vacation somewhere else, that's their prerogative too

by Jack J on Feb 6, 2013 5:28 pm • linkreport

Local economy as far as I'm concerned includes VA and MD, because the success of all 3 jurisdictions is interrelated.

And yet, they're also engaged in a desperate struggle for resources. A struggle DC was on the losing end of for many, many years, which only began to turn after racist housing laws in the 'burbs were overturned.

by oboe on Feb 6, 2013 6:39 pm • linkreport

Buy every taxpaying adult in DC two ounces of the finest kush whenever the medical dispensaries finally open.

by LHomonacionale on Feb 6, 2013 7:49 pm • linkreport

There are several ways to convert a lump sum into a stream of smaller future payments, like an annuity. The easiest would be to pay down some debt. The interest payments saved could then be used to fund something requiring money over a period of time like a new bus route.

by Falls Church on Feb 6, 2013 8:21 pm • linkreport

@Jack J It depends on what your priorities are. You could use this money for affordable housing, libraries, transportation, etc., or you can use it to give everyone an extra $55 a month. Since businesses and residents are rushing in to DC right now, it doesn't seem like the tax rates are discouraging growth. You might feel that the DC government is doing all it can do at the moment, but I (and others) think that more can be done.

by Chatham on Feb 6, 2013 8:28 pm • linkreport

I support Mara's 'save the surplus' response, but I'm not sure how his claim that "If every time we [DC] have a surplus, our response is spend, spend, spend" is consistent with current DC law requiring that we put the surplus into the fund balance, and that the fund can't be tapped until it reaches two month's worth of city revenue.
Focusing on lowering taxes because we have large surpluses reminds me of Bush's budget policies and we know how well they turned out.

by DCster on Feb 6, 2013 9:06 pm • linkreport

I agree generally with the sentiment of save some, invest some. All of the candidates (well, except Mara) gave similar answers, and DCster sort of hits it with the flaws in Mara's response. Ultimately, everyone is going to differ a little in how to invest in the city, but if we don't invest now, when there is a little surplus, then when?

by William on Feb 7, 2013 7:35 am • linkreport

Get the young people back in to school and off the street with educational and sports related afterschool programs. Make sure each student succeeds and is expected to succeed.

by AndrewB on Feb 7, 2013 7:48 am • linkreport

Tax cuts.

by Dante on Feb 7, 2013 9:35 am • linkreport

David/cminus: thank you. That wasn't clear in the article or survey. My disappointment then shifts to the candidates for not mentioning infrastructure.

by Froggie on Feb 7, 2013 11:47 am • linkreport

Agree with Jack J. The money belongs to the taxpayers and it should be returned. Governments should not be running up huge surpluses. It's bad accounting and money management.

And, considering that taxes are much lower in VA, where most of the region's Fortune 500 companies choose to locate, we need to make DC's tax rate competitive.

Also agree with Mara about the audit of DC agencies to cut further spending but the surplus itself should be returned in the form of tax cuts across the board.

by Burd on Feb 7, 2013 12:12 pm • linkreport

I would like to see transportation as an option. I like H Street LL's idea to support a more streetcar lines in the city or another idea would be tackle some items in the Metro momentum proposal to connect Metro Center and Gallery Place and the West and North Farragut stations.

by Matthew on Feb 7, 2013 1:02 pm • linkreport

I too would have liked to see transportation / infrastructure investments. On the "refund v. rainy day fund" question - I worry about the high debt / population ratio DC has. If it wasn't so cheap to borrow, I'd say take the money to retire debt where possible. Then it's not sitting there tempting someone to spend it, and we get the long-term savings of reduced debt service. Of course, it is cheap to borrow. So I voted mostly for the rainy day fund ...

by John on Feb 7, 2013 1:11 pm • linkreport

Recreation centers and after-school programs to keep kids off the street and focused on positive endeavors.

And affordable housing so DC's poor don't have to keep flocking to PG County.

by ceefer66 on Feb 7, 2013 6:56 pm • linkreport

How about reducing taxes? Undoubtedly, much of the surplus is due to escalating real property taxes (rising at 10% per year under the "cap"). Why should homeowners have to fund this surplus?

by matt on Feb 11, 2013 2:13 pm • linkreport

Send it over to DCDOT to continue funding the street cars project.

by MLS on Feb 12, 2013 1:17 pm • linkreport

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