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Here's how you, and candidates, would use DC's surplus

Last week on Let's Choose DC (a partnership of Greater Greater Washington, DCist, and PoPville), we had responses from the candidates on how they would spend DC's $417 million surplus. But before you rated the candidates on their responses, we asked you for your own views.

Here's what you said:

We asked you about each possible spending category that any candidate mentioned in his or her responses. (There are lots of other possible budget priorities that the candidates did not mention; for space, we didn't include any of those.)

74% of you said that putting at least some money into the DC rainy-day fund is a moderator or high priority. Other spending areas that rated highly include parks, recreation, libraries, and schools (71%), supporting troubled or underperforming students (63%) and job training (58%).

On the other end of the spectrum, tax cuts were some of the lowest-ranking categories, with lower taxes for seniors (something Perry Redd mentioned in his response only getting 19% support for being a moderate or high priority, lower business taxes (something a few candidates mentioned) at 24%, and lower taxes overall 33%.

How do the candidates stack up?

In past weeks, we've created a single bar graph for how you judged candidates' responses to our questions. But when it comes to the budget, you're probably more interested in what a candidate said he or she would do with the money than the way he or she said it.

We wanted to understand how voters who cared about different budget priorities rated each candidate. Did voters who care about affordable housing see the candidates differently from those that would prioritize police and fire facilities?

Here's the graph:

Each of the clusters represents one budget category. If a voter rated that category moderately or very important, his or her votes show up there. Each vertical bar shows how many voters gave a particular candidate a "very persuasive" or "persuasive" rating on that budget category.

Every candidate got a different color—brown for Michael Brown, red for Perry Redd, and gray/silver for Elissa Silverman, with more arbitrary choices for the other 4.

For example, among voters who think saving money in the rainy-day fund is important, Matthew Frumin (green bars) and Elissa Silverman scored the highest for their responses.

In fact, Frumin and Silverman stick out (literally, on the graph) on all of the categories except tax cuts. Frumin barely beat out Silverman in most categories, while she took the top for safety net programs.

Only voters who prioritize tax cuts had a somewhat different view. Perhaps not surprisingly, Patrick Mara won among voters who cared most about general or business tax cuts. However, that was a small proportion of voters.

Despite some early expectations, Mara seems to be struggling to win over voters who might be sympathetic to his fiscal message but also prioritize other factors. He also skipped our question about DC's growth and this week's question on bicycling.

Vote on drivers vs. bicycles

This week, candidates weighed in on how drivers, cyclists, and others can just get along on our streets. If you haven't seen their responses yet, go vote now!

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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That second graph is incomprehensible.

by andrew on Feb 14, 2013 12:23 pm • linkreport

Save for a rainy day .... excellent choice.

by Jack Love on Feb 14, 2013 12:35 pm • linkreport

andrew: It's a lot of data to pack into a small space, for sure! How would you have done it differently?

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Feb 14, 2013 12:35 pm • linkreport

Not really surprising. It makes fiscal sense to save some money when you have a surplus. Parks/Rec/Libraries/Schools is such a hugely broad category it would hard to find anyone in the city that doesn't utilize some of those resources to a degree, or at least much more so than say some of the social services or arts programs.

by Alan B. on Feb 14, 2013 12:37 pm • linkreport

I realize that "lower taxes for seniors" may not seem like a compelling public goal for many, but there is value in exploring further property tax relief for seniors, most of whom are on fixed incomes. Ever rising assessments drive many senior citizens from their homes. It would be good if there were a way defer some taxation for seniors on a home's incresed value until after it is sold. Allowing seniors to age in place is an important public objective and also helps to create stable, diverse, liveable neighborhoods. Seniors who have lived in a community for a long time tend to care about and stay inovled in it, and often provide eyes and ears on the street when younger residents are away at work (or too busy with their lives.)

by JasperJ on Feb 14, 2013 12:37 pm • linkreport

@Geoffrey Hatchard
It is a lot of information, but I think the graph would have been improved if it showed percentages of each priority bucket rather than absolute counts. We already know that few people thought the options on the right were high/moderate priority from the graph above.

Also I would like to see the inverse of that graph - a graph for each candidate that shows what percentage of the people who found them persuasive put each priority at high/moderate.

by MLD on Feb 14, 2013 12:45 pm • linkreport

Jasper, I'd rather see assistance to low income seniors (renters or owners) rather than lower taxes for seniors. Some seniors are millionaires are there needs to be a differentiation. Do you really want to lower property taxes on most of NW DC?

by Alan B. on Feb 14, 2013 12:53 pm • linkreport

Have to admit, the second graph isn't exactly reader-friendly.

One more thing, if I hadn't read about them here, I'm sure I would know little to nothing about Frumin and Silverman since I don't see any evidence of their EOTR campaign. I appreciate him having some semblance of support in a small pocket of W7 but it would be nice to see some real activity EOTR, especially in W8. Sit your arses in front of Giant, Ihop, Anacostia/Congress Heights/Southern Avenue stations for a change and not do what all others have done and see it as a nonstarter. And people wonder why it's hard to make inroads EOTR.

*jumps off soapbox*

by HogWash on Feb 14, 2013 1:03 pm • linkreport

Yes, being mostly color-blind I can't see a lot in that second graph either. I think a series of pie charts (or stacked graphs) for each candidate and their priorities?

Tough one!

by Jack Love on Feb 14, 2013 1:07 pm • linkreport

I think one gigantic Venn diagram would have been more appropriate. (Kidding).

I think allowing some deferral on property taxes is worth exploring. So long as it will be captured when the homeowner sells the house or dies, I think it's a reasonable investment in helping out senior citizens. I agree that it shouldn't be available to wealthy senior citizens, but you could simply means test it. Most of the city's tax incentives cap out at a certain income (one that is typically pretty low).

We already kind of do this through the homestead status and by putting a cap on annual increases in the assessment. But I'm personally not opposed to exploring whether further measures could be enacted to limit the property tax increases for senior citizens who have been in their homes for a long time.

Again, so long as the increases accrue in a separate account that then comes due before the property can be transferred. That's a fair trade off I think.

by TM on Feb 14, 2013 1:17 pm • linkreport

It seems like Frumin won most of the categories, some fairly convincingly, except for Mara on the lower taxes and Silverman, barely, on social safety net and lower taxes for seniors. I am not sure how that aligns with the write-up. Either way, it is a complex set of answers that is very difficult to convey graphically.

by William on Feb 14, 2013 1:19 pm • linkreport

I know it was talked about before, but I think the huge gap in this whole thing is infrastructure. What could we do if we spent some of that money on furthering our street car plan or metro service?

by Matthew on Feb 14, 2013 1:22 pm • linkreport

@Jasper J: The city already has a HUGE property tax relief program for senior citizens earning less than $100,000/year. They pay half the property tax that anyone else would pay on the same property. You want to cut their taxes even more?

I can see the objection about people being forced out of their homes. So there's a reasonable case for having a property tax deferral program -- let seniors defer property tax payments, so they pay less or nothing now, and then pay that back (with interest) when they die or sell the house. But more tax breaks for seniors would be ridiculous.

by Rob on Feb 14, 2013 1:26 pm • linkreport

Jasper, we already have a property tax program for seniors and one for low-income people, and I think they can be combined. For seniors, property tax is halved. For lower-income folks, up to a 5% increase in property taxes can be claimed back as an income tax credit (which I think, if I'm recalling correctly, is refundable). Combine that with the cap of a 10% year-to-year increase, and seniors may pay no additional property taxes year-to-year. The only question I have is do people know about these programs and use them?

by Ms. D on Feb 14, 2013 1:30 pm • linkreport

A revenue neutral way of increasing property tax relief to seniors who need it most would be to put existing tax relief on a sliding scale based on age. Currently, when you go from age 64 to age 65 you get a huge windfall in the form of a 50% reduction in taxes. Instead, how about something like a 25% relief from age 65-70, 50% from 70-75, 75% from 75-80 and 90% relief above age 80. You could figure out the actual age bands to use based on actuarial tables so that the change was revenue neutral.

by Falls Church on Feb 14, 2013 1:43 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church

Interesting idea. I could certainly see the use in that. I think in addition it should be means tested. No reason I should be subsidizing a 67 year old with a 1.5 million dollar home in Cleveland Park who is raking in $200,000 a year in interest and dividends.

by Kyle-W on Feb 14, 2013 1:59 pm • linkreport

TM, you can be wealthy and not have a lot of income though. I'd want to keep the bar pretty high.

by Alan B. on Feb 14, 2013 2:14 pm • linkreport

A lot of senior homeowners may not be low-income but they also are just barely lower-middle-income and can easily be forced out of their homes with skyrocketing property taxes or forced into usually bad-deal reverse-mortgages.

by Tom Coumaris on Feb 14, 2013 4:47 pm • linkreport

Well, Tom, the halving of property taxes gets everyone under around $100K. The other program I cited would be for truly low-income singles or couples. I've helped a couple families in my neighborhood apply for it, and the upper limit for a family of 4 is about $60K (it operates on a sliding scale to a cut-off). So, for a single or couple it's lower. But I don't consider a 10% MAX increase in property taxes year-over-year to be "skyrocketing." If you're a senior with income under about $100K who owns a median home in DC (worth about $450K), the most your property taxes could increase year-over-year is $13/month. If you have reportable income of $50K/year, that's .3% of your income each year, if and only if your property is and continues to appreciate at a rate of 10%/year or greater. And if your income is lower than that, you're likely eligible for the low-income property tax credit, so the increase would be less to nothing (depending on income).

In my experience, it's not property taxes that force people out, but maintenance concerns. Where they would have cleaned the gutters or fixed the railing or weeded the garden themselves, they find themselves paying someone to do it or letting the place deteriorate until it's barely livable. And as the house ages, more major work becomes necessary. Maybe that's something the summer employment program could help out with, to some extent, and charities could help with as well. The other item is utility bills. Heating, cooling, and powering a 3- to 4-bedroom house for only 1 or 2 people to live there begins to strain the budget.

I wouldn't be opposed to a deferred taxation scheme, but that hinges on ever-increasing property values and seniors living in homes that are not heavily leveraged. Those assumptions work right now, but they may not work forever or in every neighborhood or situation. I'd much prefer to see an innovative scheme to help seniors get into more appropriate housing in the city, if not their own neighborhood. Some kind of way to let them sell their family homes to families and let them move into a smaller space nearby where the purchase cost, as well as maintenance and utility costs, aren't a burden. I agree that the city has much to offer seniors, but a large SFH can be a burden when all the kids are gone and you're no longer earning that income nor able to keep up with the upkeep. I admit that I don't know exactly how to make this work, but it seems like it might be possible, if people who have experience with these kinds of things thought a smidge outside of the box.

by Ms. D on Feb 14, 2013 11:30 pm • linkreport

Like ADU's? Works for me.

You will get a lot of resistance from the opponents of the Office of Planning Zoning rewrite proposals, though. Of course, these are many of the same people who are forming neighborhood "aging in-place" villages.

by William on Feb 15, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

Definitely put much of the surplus into the rainy day fund. How about using some of the remainder to improve neighborhood public health clinics, to promote preventive care and take the huge pressure off our DC hospital emergency rooms? Housing aid should go to the established DC middle and working class, to help redress the big imbalance in new and renovated housing created over the past decade by the emergence of DC as a destination residence for Gen Y. Cab drivers, teachers and teacher's aides, health care workers, mechanics, plumbers and electricians, retail sales workers and other service industry folks should be targeted. They shouldn't have to commute from 20 miles out every morning and evening to find a decent place to live. Not "birds of passage," but established DC residents and "stakeholders."

by Publius Washingtoniensis on Feb 15, 2013 10:56 am • linkreport

Sadly there seemed to be no interest in spending some of the one-time surplus on transit and transportation infrastructure projects.

by Steve Strauss on Feb 15, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport

"Targeted support for arts projects" -- if that's code for infrastructure support for the new DC United stadium, put me in that category.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Feb 15, 2013 3:14 pm • linkreport

Thank you DC for taking more of my money than you needed, and then thinking that its better for you to hold on to it.

Because, you, dear government leaders, certainly know whats better for me than I do.

by Jack on Feb 15, 2013 3:27 pm • linkreport

ADUs are one option, and for seniors whose property can support that (enough land/the building for a carriage house, a set-up for an in-law suite) and who aren't heavily leveraged, it can work. They'd make plenty in rent to support maintenance, taxes, and even provide a little income. But being a landlord can be complicated, and if the home is not in great shape, the start-up costs could be problematic. It's *one* piece of a larger puzzle, which I think also includes finding a way to get some seniors into multi-unit buildings where a large chunk of their maintenance and repair responsibilities are handled centrally. Something like IZ for seniors for *owned* properties. Again, I don't have the expertise to provide specifics, but it seems like we should be able to do this if we just put our minds to it.

by Ms. D on Feb 16, 2013 10:32 am • linkreport

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