Gimme, Gimme

Badges and fire hoses trump affordable housing and health care for the poor

When $20 million pops up in the desert that is the city budget, it's not surprising that housing advocates and the mayor's staff fight over it like Bedouins battling over a water hole at the oasis.

Or maybe it's more like someone trying to cash in a winning lottery ticket when a so-called friend shows up at the last minute to claim he chipped in for the ticket and wants a chunk of the winnings.

Whatever you compare this mess to, what is going on between Mayor Francis Slay and the housing advocates who were instrumental in passing the use-tax proposal in 2001 is just plain ugly -- and it's going to get a lot uglier.

Proposition H passed primarily because of years of work by housing advocates who wanted to create a dedicated source of revenue for an affordable housing trust fund that would be controlled by an independent commission. Similar efforts to reinstate the use tax, which puts a 2.6-cent tax on city companies that make out-of-state purchases of more than $2,000, had failed.

To cobble together a winning coalition, the housing folks cut health-care advocates in on the deal, agreeing to split the revenue 50-50 so that the city could fund ConnectCare, the voucher system created after the closure of Regional Hospital, the last public hospital in the area.

Estimates varied widely on what the tax would bring in, but the figure most publicized was about $5 million. Well, before anyone could yell, "Bingo!" the tax was bringing in about $20 million a year. Now everybody wants a taste.

Slay asked the housing commission for $5.6 million to fund existing city programs, some associated with affordable housing in only the loosest sense. To its credit, the commission saw the shell game Slay was playing, luring new money in to pay for old programs and thereby freeing up cash previously dedicated to those purposes and putting it somewhere else. So the commission said no to the mayor and signed off on only $2.2 million of his requests.

That didn't make the boys in Room 200 happy.

The commission then found out about term limits and the mayor's appointment powers over them. Terms for three members of the housing commission expired June 30. Slay will replace them with people of his own choosing, and you can bet they won't balk at his requests.

Janet Becker, a housing advocate who has been fighting the good fight or a long time, sees where this is headed but also puts Slay's actions in perspective.

"Next year, he'll pick off the next three who are finished and not reappoint them," says Becker. "Then he'll have six out of eleven, and then what can anybody do, as long as he's there? But that's not forever. That's how I have to look at it. We have a rough time to go through. If we're lucky, we'll have two years' worth of what we're entitled to in our ordinance with the use tax. I don't think he can touch it until a year from now, so right there it's $20 million."

By "touch it," Becker means "take the money and run to the nearest hole in the budget levee." But Slay isn't satisfied with this waiting game -- he's pushing an ordinance through the Board of Alderman that would hijack the funds from the use tax for the mother of all good causes: public safety.

Let's briefly give Slay points for this politically deft approach. By resorting to the atom bomb in the arsenal of reasons people vote for tax increases -- more for police and firefighters -- he has shown both how desperate he is and what he's prepared to do.

If Slay's ordinance makes it through the Board of Aldermen before that august body adjourns for August, the referendum to redirect the money away from affordable housing and health care makes it onto the November ballot. If it passes, it won't go into effect until July 2003.

Slay is also riding on the side of popular sentiment and patriotism. Since September 11, what more popular cause is there than police and firefighters? To sweeten the deal, the mayor has added funding for demolitions to the list. In a city where more people have left than have stayed, the need to demolish more of the city's thousands of vacant buildings gives the proposition a boost at the polls.

The problem for Slay is that housing advocates showed what they could do when Proposition H passed with 58 percent of the vote. Slay even had the good sense to jump on the bandwagon before that vote and kick in a contribution. These people know how to organize and get like-minded people to the polls.

Laura Barrett, a housing advocate who helped run that campaign, never strays far from the barricades. If Slay pushes his proposal without guaranteeing sufficient funds for the affordable-housing commission, he can expect opposition from those who passed Proposition H.

"There's a lot of people who are going to be very angry about this, and rightfully so," says Barrett. "It's not often that you have a mayor going out and taking away something from people that they worked hard with him in concert to get. He's ignoring the will of the voters; he's disrespecting the advocates, the unions and churches who worked so hard to get this passed."

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