The Council’s annual practice of holding performance oversight hearings to dig into the activities of every single District agency, Board, and Commission began this month. But, I know for many of you the performance of agencies involved in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine is top of mind.
Last week, the Mayor announced that vaccinations would become available for grocery store workers, health and human services and social service outreach workers, and individuals working in manufacturing and food packaging. Furthermore, yesterday, we began offering appointments to D.C. residents who are 18 and older with qualifying medical conditions. Things have not gone well in terms of residents being able to successfully navigate the website (or call center) and I share your frustration.
A new website is on the way, which will allow residents to pre-register for the vaccine and be alerted when it’s their turn to select an appointment. This will hopefully address some of the volume problems the website has faced over the last couple of days. My colleagues and I ask weekly about the development of the new site, and I will keep you informed of that launch date. In the meantime, there is one thing I ask you to keep in mind. The District’s weekly supply of vaccine is completely driven by the federal government. Next week, we will receive 9,360 first doses of the Pfizer vaccine and the universe of individuals currently eligible to be vaccinated in the District far exceeds that number. Just today, over 36,000 people tried to access the vaccine registration website for 4,350 appointments. Often, I’m asked why we aren’t able to deliver mass vaccination sites like New York City, but the supply simply doesn’t compare. They are receiving 98,280 first doses next week.
February’s cold and wet weather has deepened our desire for a time when we can gather safely together with friends and family. The quickening pace of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout brings us hope. It will take us some time to get to everyone, but I am committed to making this process as seamless and equitable for residents. We clearly have more work to do to regain residents' trust.
Christina Henderson Councilmember, At-Large
This month, I was proud to introduce three bills that advance an equity agenda that supports women, students, and vulnerable communities in the District of Columbia.
The Fair Wage Amendment Act of 2021 (B24-64) would prohibit employers from asking prospective employees how much they earned at their previous jobs. In the District of Columbia, Black women make just 51 cents for every dollar white men earn. The National Women’s Law Center projects that over the course of a 40-year career, a Black woman in the District will earn nearly $2 million less than white men because of this gap. We must act to protect women from wage discrimination and stop a practice that prevents women from earning equal work for equal pay.
The Interagency Council on Behavioral Health Establishment Act of 2021 (B24-65) brings together District agency leaders, service providers, community-based organizations, and patients themselves to facilitate cross-sectoral responses and eliminate gaps in our continuum of behavioral health care. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare a growing mental health crisis here in the District and across the country. From increased suicides in COVID-vulnerable communities to rising substance abuse and record opioid deaths, we cannot wait to improve our coordination and delivery of behavioral health services for our residents.
The Safe Passage to School Expansion Act of 2021 (B24-66) elevates, expands and coordinates safe passage programs in multiple government agencies by creating a dedicated Office of Safe Passage reporting directly to the Mayor. When I was the Committee Director for the Committee on Education, I heard countless, heartbreaking stories about the challenges, dangers, and fear of students traversing their neighborhoods and the city to get to and from school. We need to break down barriers to attendance once we are back to full-time in-person learning and ensuring coordinated safe passage will move us in the right direction.
These three bills were previously introduced by former At-Large Councilmember David Grosso.
But what about Ranked Choice Voting?
During my run for office, it was clear to me that our current system for selecting elected officials is challenged when you have 24 candidates running for two seats. Ranked choice voting (RCV) is a better way to ensure that voters' voices are truly heard in selecting winners from large pools of candidates and that winning candidates have in fact earned a broad base of support.
RCV allows voters to rank up to five candidates for a particular office in order of their preference. If a candidate receives more than half of the first choice votes, that candidate wins – just like any other election. However, if there is no majority winner after counting first choices, the race is decided by an instant runoff.
A rapidly growing number of jurisdictions are using RCV across the U.S. This includes major cities like New York City, San Francisco and Minneapolis, the states of Maine and Alaska, and roughly 35 other local municipalities. I pledged to introduce legislation to bring RCV to the District and I intend to keep that promise. The draft legislation is complete and we are working with various stakeholders to ensure a successful introduction. Stay tuned for a forthcoming introduction date and how you can help us get this important bill through the Council.
Agency Performance Oversight
Performance oversight hearings can be interesting and highly informative! It’s an opportunity to really dive into the way agencies operate, evaluate their performance in providing service to the District, and a chance for me to bring your interests and concerns to government officials and seek resolution. Here’s a brief recap of some of the hearings I’ve attended, with interesting tidbits included:
Street sweeping will not resume on March 1, and it likely won’t start until April.
Parking enforcement will not start until there is more lenient hardship guidance in place.
There are about 36,000 expired driver licenses in the system. About 18,000 of them are already REAL ID and therefore don’t require an in-person visit to renew. You can do it online!
There are almost 60 transactions you can do online with DMV or via their app. As of February 1, they’re even doing first time tags/titling, motorcycle endorsements, and insurance verifications online.
Not online yet — knowledge tests (sorry new drivers) or services for new residents.
If you’re new to DC, we know you’re having an extra tough time booking “New Resident” appointments. It’s ok for you to book a regular “License/ID service” appointment — there’s more availability in that category.
Residential Parking Permit fees are going up to $50 per year on March 1.
There was lots of community praise for DBH’s work to expand the school-based mental health program during the pandemic. Providers have been providing services virtually.
Not surprisingly, it is hard to measure impact in this unconventional first year. At home, kids may not have privacy, which can make providing service to them more challenging.
DBH wasn’t able to answer how many students each provider was dealing with. I understand sometimes conversations could just be one-offs, but caseload management is important to prevent burnout or someone missing something. Nonetheless, I’m supporting the push for an expansion of the SBMH program!
The District saw an increase in opioid deaths in FY2020, from 281 to 349. Poly drug use and mixtures was most commonly the source. Seventy-six percent of the deaths were of people ages 40-69, with ages 50-59 the most prevalent. This impacts how we need to do outreach.
I asked a lot about the Community Response Team (CRT) unit. Can this be an avenue to shift from an overreliance on law enforcement to handle community challenges? The team has 66 fulltime employees and answers calls 24/7. Problem? They are not deployed through 911.
The CRT offers 24-hour services for psychiatric emergencies, trauma, signs of mental health or substance use disorders. They had encounters with over 10,300 residents in FY2020. But to access them, you must call 1-888-793-4357. Again, they are not deployed via 911.
BOE did purchase the drop boxes that were super popular and intend to use them in the future!
There is a question about whether legislation is necessary for the Board to continue to proactively mail every registered voter a ballot.
The Board of Elections did receive about $7.4 million in federal and private grant funding to supplement its local budget. There are no guarantees that Congress would appropriate this money again, so this needs to be a consideration heading into budget season for FY2022.
Furthermore, due to the pandemic, a number of DC government employees were able to be detailed to the Board of Elections to help with staffing during early vote and Election Day. They will need a plan to recruit volunteers and temporary staff to cover future elections. Something to watch for in the budget.
I had lots of questions for DOEE on their enforcement on mold and lead paint complaints. This is definitely an area that needs work. A third of all complaints DOEE received this past year was for mold. But there is only ONE inspector.
Budget cuts and safety concerns stalled mold inspections in 2020 by two agencies: DOEE and DCRA. DOEE doesn’t think it can issue fines for mold, while DCRA doesn’t have its inspectors trained on mold yet. I’m working with Councilmember Cheh to fix this. It’s a huge problem considering mold can lead to respiratory issues like asthma.
DOEE helped 130 families to replace lead pipes running to their homes last year – with plenty of money left over to do more. Everyone can get some level of assistance, regardless of income. More info here.
If you’re struggling with your power or gas bills, you might qualify for DC’s LIHEAP program. Be strategic and work with the utility to set up a payment plan first. We’ve got $17 million in the fund, but beat the rush of applicants that will come once the public health emergency and shutoff moratorium end.
If you’re struggling with your electric bill now, it might be hard to think about home improvements. But through our Solar For All program, DOEE can help repair your roof AND install solar panels that will save you money on electricity moving forward. They’re averaging over 3,000 installations per year. Apply here.
In early February, the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) delivered the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) to the Council. The CAFR showed that the District realized more than $526 million in surplus at the close of Fiscal Year 2020, at the end of September. While some are upset at the CFO for issuing conservative revenue projections at a time when the economic consequences and federal aid were unclear, I understand that the CFO and the Council acted with the best information available at the time. Additionally, this surplus could help us balance our budget and financial plan without having to cut services or jobs like many other jurisdictions have been forced to do.
The CAFR was the 24thconsecutive clean audit, with no material weaknesses or significant deficiencies for the 6thconsecutive year. Our pension and retiree funds are fully funded with increased net positions, and we ended FY20 with full reserves, though we are utilizing our reserves to help fund government services in FY21.
At the same time, the need for unemployment benefits increased by 1,207% in FY20 compared to FY19, which also realized an increased need for assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (SNAP and TANF.) The CAFR also illustrates how uneven the impact of this pandemic has been, considering that we realized higher than anticipated revenues from income related to an over-performing stock market and housing market. If you can afford to participate in both markets, you’re likely doing ok, but if you are an hourly or low-wage worker, you’re lucky to have a job at all.
While we have much to be proud of when it comes to the fiscal management of the District’s funds, but we still have many unmet needs that will require our attention in the upcoming budget process. Once the Mayor submits the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, the Council has the opportunity to make investments that will aid the recovery of household finances, student academic development and emotional health, businesses’ bottom lines, while supporting in-demand social programs and much more.
Investments in Out of School Time partner organizations and the Department of Parks and Recreation for age-appropriate, socially distant activities for students this summer;
Invest $6.4 million in school-based mental health and reverse FY21 cuts to the Community Based Mental Health Program;
Increase the childcare subsidy and provide payments to child care centers and homes based on enrollment, not attendance;
Examine components of my Maternal Health Resources and Access Act to determine if portions can be implemented administratively and funded in the budget;
Immediate and significant investments in gun violence prevention programs, and community-based violence intervention work to address increasing instances of violent crime;
Support our arts and entertainment industry in a broad and meaningful way;
Increased investments for housing and homelessness programs such as Permanent Supportive Housing, homeless street outreach, Emergency Rental Assistance Program, and investments to rehabilitate and modernize our public housing stock.
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