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March 5, 2006

Baby Bloomers

Dear Bloomers:

Spring is coming, it really is. The truest sign of approaching spring in Washington is the blossoming of the web site for the National Cherry Blossom Festival (, which gives the schedule of the official events and has a bloom watch page to count down to the real event, the blossoming of the cherry trees. We all know about the great grove around the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin, but in a few weeks many neighborhoods and parks in the city will have gorgeous flowering trees. If you will, please help us find the best places to go to appreciate spring trees aside from the Mall. Where do you go to see our city in bloom?

The owners of Major League Baseball have grudgingly agreed to accept the city’s $611 million gift as a good start, with the provision that, as expenses for building the baseball stadium escalate far beyond that, the city will pay for all the cost overruns. All the city council has to do is agree in advance that the supposed cap it pretended to place on the city’s spending was a complete fraud on the residents of the city. Mayor Williams thanks the MLB for its gracious generosity in agreeing to raid the city’s treasury, and says it will serve as a model and inspiration for all the development giveaway deals he hopes to conclude this year.

I’d like to wish David Sobelsohn, a frequent contributor to themail, a quick and complete recovery. You may have heard that David was badly beaten in a street robbery last week, as he walked to a community meeting. He’s out of the hospital now. Get well quick, David.

Gary Imhoff


Flawed Assessments
Peter S. Craig,

On March 1, the Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR) posted on its web site its proposed assessments for tax year 2007, along with its Assessor Reference Materials. These steps permit an overview of the problems confronting homeowners throughout the city, including Cleveland Park. All proposed assessments are alleged to be based on cost of replacement new less depreciation and obsolescence. However, the tables derived by OTR cast some question on this allegation. For example:

1) The base rate for cost of replacement of detached houses has been changed from $116.67 per square foot of "effective area" as of January 1, 2005, to $149.57, as of January 1, 2006, an increase of 28 percent in twelve months. For row houses, the change is from $92.52 per square foot to $126.65, an increase of 37 percent. I am unaware of such steep inflation in building costs. 2) The maximum deduction for depreciation and obsolescence is 16 percent for all houses. This compares to a maximum depreciation for commercial structures of 80 percent. It is impossible for the taxpayer to find out how the multipliers used by OTR were derived, because the judgments and assumptions being entered into the computer are known only to the few in OTR who were responsible for constructing the multipliers. However, the resulting data casts serious doubts on the validity of OTR’s statistical tables.

In addition, OTR persists in the erroneous assumption that the market price of residential properties (gross sales price on the deed) is the same as "estimated market value" under District assessment law. This is not what the law says. As held by Judge Hamilton last September, "estimated market value, as used in the DC Code, refers solely to the value of the real property being assessed and does not include personal property or services or taxes related to the sale of such real property that would be borne by the owner if the property were sold, such as agents’ commissions, fix-up costs (or seller subsidy at closing) and transfer taxes." Ordinarily, "estimated market value" (EMV) is about 90 percent of the selling price. The effect of this error is to inflate assessments by about 11 percent.

By all tests, however, the secret methodology being followed by OTR falls far short of being satisfactory and has caused unacceptable discrimination among DC homeowners. This can be seen by comparing the estimated market values of houses sold in 2005 (the alleged basis for the new assessments) to the proposed assessments for such houses.

Under existing law, OTR is expected to issue assessments which are within 5 percent of estimated market value. If within this range, they are immune from change on appeal to the Board of Real Property Assessments and Appeals. In Cleveland Park, 55 houses were sold in 2005. Under OTR’s new assessments, only eight (14.55 percent) have proposed assessments within 5 percent of estimated market value. Another fourteen (25.45 percent) are under-assessed. But 33 (60 percent) are over-assessed. Examples of the extremes are set forth below:

3317 Newark Street sold for $1,850,000 in 2005 (estimated market value of $1,665,000). OTR proposes it be assessed at $1,026,770 -- only 62 percent of its estimated market value (EMV). 2927 Macomb Street sold for $1,750,000 in 2005 (EMV=$1,575,000). OTR’s proposed assessment is $1,116,750 -- only 71 percent of EMV. 3454 Newark Street sold for $3,253,000 (EMV=$2,927,700). Proposed assessment is $2,246,870 -- only 77 percent of EMV. 3222 Woodley Road sold for $1,025,000 (EMV=$922,500). Proposed assessment is $1,259,110 -- 136 percent of EMV. 3124 38th Street sold for $1,065,000 (EMV=$958,500). Proposed assessment is $1,417,650 -- 148 percent of EMV. 3010 Ordway Street sold for $1,450,000 (EMV=$1,305,000). Proposed assessment is $2,045,080 -- 157 percent of EMV.

OTR does not like the standard in DC law that its assessments should be within 5 percent of estimated market value. Instead, it favors the standard of its trade association, the International Association of Assessment Officials (IAAO), which has a rule that the average coefficient of dispersion (COD or average deviation of each assessment/sales ratio from the median assessment/sales ratio for the entire group of sales) should not exceed 15 percent for heterogeneous areas. However, by its own measure, OTR also flunks this rule. As shown on page 89 of its Assessor’s Reference Materials, the COD for Cleveland Park for last year’s assessments was 17 percent for single-family houses in Cleveland Park and 19.5 percent citywide. Even these figures are too low, as OTR excluded from its sales ratio report sales not to its liking.

The primary objective of the District’s real property tax law is the “equitable sharing of the financial burden of the government of the District of Columbia.” Indeed, the Equal Protection clause of the US Constitution requires that each homeowner be treated equitably. The intentional discrimination imposed by the District’s flawed assessment system does not meet this objective.


Why Your Property Tax Bill Went Down This Year
Matt Forman,

If you’re like many, the property tax bill you just received is smaller than last year’s. Assuming that the Office of Tax and Revenue calculated the bills correctly, it went down for three reasons. 1) Correction of the triennial group disparity. Certain parts of the city had a 25 percent cap in prior years, while other parts had only a 12 percent cap. The council passed legislation to correct the disparity. Special thanks go to Jack Evans who sponsored the legislation, which gathered support from the rest of the council. Phil Mendelson was the only one to raise objection on the dais. 2) Lowering of the tax rate from .96 percent to .92 percent. Obviously not much of a reduction ($40 per $100,000 of assessed value). 3) Increase of the homestead deduction. (As near as I can tell, it went up to $52,000 in most cases, not the $60,000 they’re claiming on your tax bill. Savings from this item equaled $202.40.) Finally, the cap was lowered from 12 percent to 10 percent, i.e., your bill would have gone up 12 percent, but went up only 10 percent, minus the three types of relief just mentioned, resulting in a net savings in many cases. Of course, all this is only a short reprieve from the massive increases we’ve had over the past several years. Bills will keep going up 10 percent a year from now on. Jack Evans had proposed a 5 percent cap, but Phil Mendelson gathered enough opposition behind the scenes to ensure a 10 percent annual increase. Remember this at election time this fall.

As to whether you should appeal your assessment, remember that you don’t pay tax on your full assessment. Rather, you only pay it on the capped amount (which you can calculate by dividing your annual tax bill by .0092). So it’s only worth appealing if you think you can prove that your full assessed value should be less than your capped value. If not, your tax bill won’t go down.


Assessments Rising, But Property Taxes Falling
Ed Lazere,

DC homeowners just got their new assessment notices, and for most the news is that their home continues to rise in value. While many homeowners may think their tax bills are jumping, too, the reality is that tax bills are falling for the vast majority of DC homeowners. This the result of several property tax relief measures adopted in 2006, including a rate cut, an increase in the Homestead Deduction, and a 10 percent cap on increases in taxable assessments.

A new analysis from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute shows that 79 percent of DC homeowners will pay less in property taxes in 2006 than they paid in 2005. For the remaining homeowners, tax increases will generally be less than five percent. (These figures do not reflect the "triennial fix" that reduced taxable assessments for two thirds of homeowners this year, due to data limitations. If this had been reflected, it would show even more homeowners paying less in 2006 than in 2005.)

The DCFPI analysis found that the tax relief adopted in 2005 was so substantial that 2007 tax bills will remain lower than the 2005 bills for nearly half of DC homeowners. The full analysis can be found at


Giant to Expand at Last at Friendship Heights
Gabe Fineman,

Always on the lookout for good neighborhood news, I can report that Giant Foods announced plans to redevelop the two blocks they own on Wisconsin Avenue, north and south of Newark Street, to include a much larger supermarket. This was discussed at a community meeting Tuesday night sponsored by ANC3C with about 135 people present. First announced seven years ago, the plans were put on hold and then changed because of protests by some immediate neighbors and the Office of Planning threatening to declare the current mundane buildings as historic. The plans include a 400-space underground parking garage. A fuller report is available at


NCMC Developments
Dorothy Brizill,

With just ten months remaining in his term of office, Mayor Williams is working to finish the agenda he has set for his administration, including a new baseball stadium, the National Capital Medical Center (NCMC), the construction of a new central library and public-private developments on many of the city’s real estate holdings, the construction of a new convention center hotel, and traveling to all seven continents of the world. With regard to the NCMC, in the past few weeks, the administration has sent six separate pieces of legislation to the city council seeking its support for public financing of a new $400 million hospital to be built in partnership with Howard University on the site of the former DC General Hospital on Reservation 13. The six pieces of legislation (see include an “exclusive rights agreement” between the District and Howard University, a grant agreement awarding Howard University more than $200 million in District funds, a $1-a-year lease with Howard for the nine-acre site, and an exemption for the project from the District’s legal requirement that health facilities undergo a certificate of need review. The Williams administration had pressured Council Chairman Linda Cropp to have all the NCMC legislation reviewed only by the council as a Committee of the Whole, in an effort to fast-track the process. However, Cropp has parceled the various bills to three council committees, Health, Government Operations, and Economic Development, as well as the Committee of the Whole.

In the past week, two of the committee chairs who will be reviewing the bills have raised serious questions about the project. Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, the chair of the Committee on Economic Development and the councilmember for Ward 6, where the NCMC would be located, has insisted that the NCMC go through the legally required certificate of need process, which would review both the medical need for the facility as well as the financial ability and medical competence of the partners. The administration and Howard fear that the project would not survive a certificate of need review, and threaten to abandon it if the CON review is required.

Councilmember David Catania, chairman of the Committee on Health, will play a central role in reviewing the project. This was very evident last week. At a budget performance hearing on the Department of Health last Wednesday, Catania questioned Gina Lagomarsino, special assistant on health to the City Administrator, about the urgent health care facility that the city had committed to operating at the DC General site. Lagomarsino replied that on the basis of a consultant’s report, the administration had determined that there was not enough demand for an urgent care facility at that site. Therefore, the city had ceased operating it, would not reopen it, and was going to shift urgent health care operations to Greater Southeast Community Hospital. Catania asked why, if the city didn’t believe there was enough demand for even an urgent health care facility on Reservation 13, it believed there was a need for a full-service hospital. City officials had no answer. On Friday, Catania was a guest on the DC Politics Hour (, at thirty minutes). There, he said that he had met that week with officials from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development regarding the $200 million in FHA financing that Howard is seeking to finance its portion of the project. Catania indicated that HUD’s and FHA’s base financing rules require that a certificate of need process be completed in states that have CON requirements. The rules also forbid loans to any prospective borrower that has lost money within any of the preceding three years, and Howard has run a deficit for the past two years. Off air following the broadcast, Catania revealed that Mayor Williams and he had gone together that morning to visit the Inova Healthplex facility at Franconia-Springfield (, an emergency and urgent care facility that provides an emergency room, ambulatory surgery, and specialty care. Inova Healthplex is much cheaper than the proposed NCMC; it cost only $34 million to build, and last year it treated 30,000 patients in its emergency room at a cost of $12 million, and another 30,000 patients in its ambulatory surgery for $10 million. According to Catania, Williams was extremely impressed with the facility. The question is whether the administration is willing to explore whether a facility like Inova Healthplex meets community needs better than another full-scale hospital, or whether it is so committed to the NCMC plan that it refuses to consider any alternative.


Shame on Sharon
Raymond S. Blanks, The Gerasene Group,

A deep darkness descended on public discussion and dialogue in the District last week when Councilmember Sharon Ambrose declared she refuses to conduct a public hearing on the proposed National Capital Medical Center. Ambrose, the chair of the Council’s Economic Development Committee, The Washington Post reported, insists that a certificate of need process must be a part of the proposed legislation to authorize a new hospital in Ward 6. The certificate of need process involves in-depth assessment of various factors such as finances, the need for expanded hospital capacity, and other issues involving the expertise of specialists and public participation.

Ambrose’s position of prohibiting a public hearing on the hospital is not only disturbing but also anti-democratic. “I know how to be a Councilmember,” Ambrose boasted when she campaigned in her first council race nearly a decade ago. Rather than face critics and defend her position, Ambrose maintains, there is no need for public discussion, since she’s opposed to the hospital. Voter views are not vital to her. Several significant disadvantages result from the Councilmember’s disturbing decision on dialogue. First, it strongly suggests that public decisions need not require public input but only imperial judgment. Unfortunately, Ambrose fails to respect the duty of elected leaders in a truly democratic process to also be involved in dialogue and debate on critical issues with citizens. If the people are excluded, then representative government is thwarted and truncated. When the representative dismisses the people, an essential dimension of democracy is diminished and distorted.

This recent action by Ambrose is not the first time residents have been amazed by Ambrose’s arrogance. Ambrose pushed the funding of St. Coletta School and dismissed the opposing sentiments of citizens. She was a force behind the establishment of Two Rivers Charter School although many residents objected to the new school on Capitol Hill. She also refused to hear from citizens opposed to the half-billion dollar baseball stadium. Rumor has it that the Ward 6 Councilmember is always willing, however, to meet and hear the demands of developers. The shame of Ambrose’s stance on the hearing on the hospital is the fact that she only continues to demonstrate her serious disregard of the people’s interests or views on important issues.

Ambrose has the right to oppose the proposed National Capital Medical Center. However, she held no public discussion of this issue before she decided to oppose the NCMC plan. Information on her position has not been shared or circulated via mail, public forums, or community newspapers. In essence, she has operated in isolation and shown consistently utter disdain for the people’s position on public policy issues. Therefore, I challenge the Councilmember to exit her isolation, escape from the District Building and meet me anywhere and anytime in the District or our ward for an open discussion and debate on the proposed NCMC. Accepting this challenge, Ambrose would be both seen and heard by the people and gain once more the wondrous experience of hearing from the people rather than only herself.


Specialty Schools
Gabe Goldberg, gabe at gabegold dot com

Ed T. Barron, edtb1@macdotcom said [themail, March 1], “. . . it looks to me like a decentralized Brooklyn Tech. Brooklyn Tech was a magnet, competitive-entrance school in NY that had many specialty programs, all in the same school. The school occupied a whole city block, was ten stories tall, and housed 6000 students. The school attracted many fine teachers anxious to teach in a school with great discipline and great students.”

No past tense needed. Brooklyn Tech is still there, is still a magnet school. It’s changed a bit, is now coed (it was all male when I attended) and has fewer students, because some classrooms have been converted to specialized labs. I’ve been back a couple times recently for homecomings, and it’s still an impressive building housing equally impressive students.


More Zipcar and Flexcar
Alan Kimber,

As Steve Seelig correctly points out [themail, March 1], both Zipcar and Flexcar are for-profit companies. I stand corrected and apologize for the error. I maintain the belief, though, that both are accomplishing something good here in DC, and in New York, San Francisco, and many other urban areas with way too many cars. Shared car services are a relatively new phenomenon here in the US, but have been used for years abroad to relieve congestion in major urban areas. I do hope that the District conducts a full and thorough review of the reserved parking program when the test period is up.

Providing dedicated parking spaces to these two companies, which permit twenty to forty people to go without a car (per Zip/Flex car), is no different than many other uses of public road space that would otherwise be available for parking — taxi cab stands, entrances to hotels and some other businesses, and dedicated night parking for tour bus companies. In fact, I suggest that Zip/Flex are advancing more public interest than these other examples.

As for people getting towed for parking in a Zip/Flex space, I’m not sure how one “accidentally” parks in one of these very well-marked spaces. Those I’ve seen have very clear signage painted on the surface of the spots in addition to the orange poles. One also gets towed and/or ticketed for “accidentally” parking in a cab stand or in front of a fire hydrant.



DC Public Library Events, March 7-8
Debra Truhart,

Tuesday, March 7, 7:00 p.m., Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library, 901 G Street, NW, Room A-5. C.R. Gibbs, local historian and author, presents his lecture, “Black Root of Ancient Egypt’s Glory.” Public contact: 727-1211.

Tuesday, March 7, 7:30 p.m., Takoma Park Neighborhood Library, 416 Cedar Street, NW. Poetry at Takoma Park’s spring series featuring readings by local poets Rod Jellema and Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli. Public contact: 576-7252.

Wednesday, March 8, 1:00 p.m., Juanita E. Thornton/Shepherd Park Neighborhood Library, 7420 Georgia Avenue, NW. Shepherd Park Wednesday Afternoon Book Club will discuss Tara Road by Maeve Binchy. Next month’ selection: #1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. Public contact: 541-6100.


Emerging Voices Lecture at the National Building Museum, March 8
Lauren Searl,

Wednesday, March 8, 6:30-8:00 p.m., Emerging Voices lecture: Studio Gang Architects and Lead Pencil Studio. The projects of Studio Gang Architects focus on materials, technology, and sustainability. Principal Jeanne Gang will discuss the Chicago-based firm and work, which includes the Starlight Theater at Rock Valley College in Rockford, IL; a community center in Chicago’s Chinatown; and the Marble Curtain, an installation for the Masonry Variations exhibition at the National Building Museum. Studio Gang was chosen as one of six firms representing the USA at the American Pavilion at the 2004 Venice Biennale, and won the international competition for the Ford Calumet Environmental Center in Chicago.

Founded in 1997, Lead Pencil Studio explores the emerging field created from the interdisciplinary overlap of architecture and site-specific art. Founding principals Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo will discuss the work of the Seattle-based firm, which includes the Seattle Staircase, an outdoor installation at the Sand Point Arts and Cultural Exchange; and Linear Plenum, a space that remains empty but full at the same time. Lead Pencil Studio is a recipient of a Visual Arts grant from the Creative Capital Foundation in New York, and a Special Projects grant from Arts 4Culture in Seattle. At the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW, Judiciary Square stop, Metro Red Line. Register for events at


DC Action for Children Budget Briefing, March 29
Susie Cambria,

Are you interested in how the mayor’s proposed FY 2007 budget supports children and youth? Then plan on attending DC Action for Children’s March 29 budget and policy briefing, "What’s in the FY 2007 budget for children and youth?" The event is being held from 1:30-4:30 p.m. at the True Reformer Building, 1200 U Street, NW. Panelists are: Ed Lazere, DC Fiscal Policy Institute; Brian Wilbon, Office of the Deputy Mayor for Children, Youth, Families and Elders; Rob Miller, Office of Council Chair Linda Cropp [invited]; Susie Cambria, DC Action for Children; Evita Smedley, DC Action for Children; Frankeena Wright, DC Action for Children; Mary Levy, Washington Lawyers’ Committee; and Mark Ouellette, DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp.

The advocates on the panel will present on early care and education, child welfare, child health, education and out-of-school time. The government representatives will talk about the executive and legislative branch priorities and views on the mayor’s budget.

Registration is required; to request a registration form, contact Alexis at DC Action for Children,, 234-9404. There is a fee to attend this event.


Fair Budget Coalition Town Hall Meeting on Budget, April 1
Martina Gillis,

The Fair Budget Coalition is cosponsoring a town hall meeting with more than a dozen community organizations on Saturday, April 1, at 10:0 a.m., at the True Reformer Building, 1200 U Street, NW. This is an opportunity for community members to share their concerns and also identify budget priorities for the District of Columbia. Come insert your voice into the budget process! City department directors and all councilmembers have been invited. Child care and food will be provided; you must RSVP for child care. Contact Martina Gillis, 328-5513 or Also, if you would like to be a cosponsor, please contact me.


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