At forums, meetings and one-on-ones with local business leaders, Mayor Vincent C. Gray will invariably hear their comments, complaints, or possible solutions to what they say is an untenable tax burden.
He has said in the past that he is walking a fine line between easing the District's tax burden, while still finding ways to finance city programs and projects.
One tool at his disposal is the Tax Revision Commission (TRC). Recently, Gray (D), and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown completed selection of a group of professionals and experts in business, public finance and taxation – with former Mayor Anthony A. Williams at the helm – to examine the city's tax policies and laws.
"This talented and highly qualified group of individuals, ably led by Tony Williams, will be immensely valuable to the Council and to me as we work to position our economy and our residents for future growth," Gray, 69, said. "If we are going to build the new economy I talked about in my State of the District Address, we need to ensure that we have a tax system that works for us as individuals, as businesses, and as a city."
Williams, who led the city from 1999-2007, will chair the commission which was established by the D.C. Council as part of the Fiscal Year 2012 budget. Gray said Williams and the other eight appointees will play a vital role in possibly reforming the District's tax structure.
Williams will work with David Brunori, research professor of Public Policy at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University; Teresa D. Hinze, executive director, Community Tax Aid Inc., and Stefan F. Tucker, a partner at the law firm of Venable LLP. Brown (D) tapped Williams and also appointed the other three to the panel.
The Gray appointees are Ed Lazere, executive director, D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute; Nicola Whiteman, vice president of government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington; Tracy Gordon, a fellow in the Economic Studies Program for the Brookings Institute; Catherine Collins, a scholar at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy; and Pauline Schneider, a partner and head of the public finance group at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP.
"The appointees of the commission have a wide range of knowledge and background to bring to bear on this reform project," said Brown, 41. "The diversity of experience will ensure that we have a balanced and informed approach to the issue."
The District assesses income, sales, business, employment, and property taxes to fund its services and functions. The city is restricted in what it can tax because it's the seat of the national government and the U.S. Congress ultimately decides what can be assessed.
By law, properties owned by the federal and District governments, churches, universities and non-profits cannot be taxed. In addition, those individuals who work in the city but live in surrounding jurisdictions cannot be taxed as commuters.
As a result, District residents pay a higher than average rate in many cases for income, personal, and property taxes. Business leaders like Barbara Lang, president and chief executive officer of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, have long complained about the city's high corporate and franchise taxes.
"Any D.C. business with receipts greater than $12,000 is subject to a tax rate of 9.975 percent," Lang said. "This is among the highest in the nation, with the national average being 6.6 percent and Virginia and Maryland assessing taxes at 6 percent and 8.25 respectively. The District's tax structure is a major contributing factor to that ranking, and we at the Chamber are continually working to reverse this trend."
Lang welcomes the formation of the TRC and hopes the group will begin deliberations soon, because "we are most anxious for the tax commission to move quickly with their work to overhaul our tax structure."
D.C. Councilmember Vincent Orange (D-At-Large) supports the TRC, as well. Orange, who is an attorney and a certified public accountant, said that a comprehensive review of what the District taxes and how it is collected needs to be done.
"I suspect that not only do we get a lot of money from taxes but we also lose money from not taxing certain things," Orange, 54, said. "There is the issue of the commuter tax and those entities that the city cannot assess. We have to study this to see what we can do to generate more revenue through taxes and to make the necessary changes in our tax policy in order to move the city forward."
Williams, 60, has been credited for returning the city to fiscal solvency and making it more attractive to national and international businesses and investors. He worked to revitalize downtown Washington and put into motion the upgrading of such areas as Capitol Hill East, Columbia Heights, the H Street Corridor and the area around Nationals Park in Southeast. Prior to his mayoral tenure, he was the District's chief financial officer appointed by Congress to help the city deal with a $500 million budget shortfall.
However, Williams was criticized throughout his tenure as mayor for having little interest in economic development east of the Anacostia River.
Williams is a senior strategic advisor for the District office of the international law firm of McKenna, Long and Aldridge.
When Sam Taylor, a resident of Northwest, heard that Williams would lead the TRC, he smiled.
"I am biased when it comes to Anthony Williams because I like him," Taylor said.
Taylor, a retired federal employee, said that he liked what he heard about the TRC, as long as it stays within the confines of its mission.
"I think it should advise the legislative branch of the city on the taxes we pay here," he said. "I won't have a problem as long as it is strictly advisory in nature."
Besides, Taylor said, taxes are not the issue.
"What I want to know is what will I get for the taxes I pay?" he asked.