Williams Targets Tobacco Settlement
Mayor Anthony A. Williams asked the D.C. Council last night to approve a resolution that would tap funds from the tobacco settlement to pay $9.9 million in bonuses to unionized city workers.
The council, which meets today, must approve the resolution if 5,807 workers are to receive the bonus by Dec. 17--the date promised by the mayor. Some council members have objected to the proposal, but others acknowledged that it would be hard to deny what amounts to a holiday gift to a constituency as important as organized labor.
"We're fairly optimistic the council will approve it," acting city administrator Norman Dong said last night.
The District is supposed to receive about $1.2 billion in tobacco funds over the next 25 years, its share of a nationwide settlement between the tobacco industry and the states for health care costs associated with tobacco-related illnesses.
The mayor and council had agreed to spend most of that money this year on children and health programs. Under the plan worked out yesterday, the money for the bonuses would be "borrowed" from the tobacco settlement and then repaid by tapping money from the $150 million budget surplus or the fiscal 2001 budget, Dong said. In this way, no money would be lost from children and health programs.
The one-time bonuses are a reward to employees, who gave up raises and were even furloughed during the city's financial crisis. Williams also had no choice--the city's labor agreement says that if the District finishes the budget year with a surplus, the mayor must reopen talks with the unions about a bonus.
"It's a contractual obligation" to award the bonuses, said council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who said she will cite that argument to her colleagues today to convince them that the government must pay the workers.
The mayor agreed to the bonuses without knowing how many employees would be eligible, how much it would cost the city treasury or where the money would come from. Williams initially said 6,500 workers would get the bonus, at a cost of up to $11 million. The money was to come from an $18 million fund approved by Congress and intended to provide severance benefits to as many as 1,000 employees cut from the payroll.
But Williams, a Democrat, didn't tell the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District of his plans. When the chairman, Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., found out, he rejected the idea, saying it was illegal. That sent city officials into a frantic search to find another source for the bonuses.