WASHINGTON – Now in his final year in city hall, Mayor Anthony A. Williams believes he has changed the District of Columbia for the better -- though he admits there is still work to be done.
"They will remember me as a builder who just came in and got things done," Williams told The Associated Press in an interview.
Since taking the reins from Mayor Marion Barry on Jan. 2, 1999, Williams has led efforts to retrain and equip a beleaguered workforce which had survived the city's 1995 financial collapse and two years of oversight by a presidentially appointed financial control board. Decades of deferred maintenance didn't help.
"We had 10-year-old squad cars, our computers were junk, and we've made a lot of improvements," said Chief Charles H. Ramsey of the city's Metropolitan Police Department. Ramsey credits Williams with helping to rebuild police facilities that suffered from leaking roofs and plumbing problems.
"There was the famous snow storm when they just couldn't get the snow plows out because most of them didn't work," said Alice Rivlin, who chaired the control board, which ended its oversight in 2001.
Rivlin praised Williams for working effectively with the 13-member D.C. Council to produce seven consecutive balanced budgets and push the city's bond rating from junk status to A-Plus. The city also has cash reserves totaling $1.2 billion. A decade ago, it was facing a $512 million deficit.
"The next person who inherits the district is going to be dealt a hand with $1.5 billion in the bank," said D.C. Council member Vincent Orange, D-Ward 5. Orange is one of six candidates for the Democratic mayoral nomination, including two other council members.
"I'm not saying everything's been fixed, but the government operates much more effectively," said Rivlin, now a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank. She added that the economic upturn has driven housing prices and rents higher, prompting the need for affordable housing subsidies.
"Low and even middle income people are being priced out of the city," Rivlin said.
The mayor has had to focus on problems both large and small.
He was able to replace outdated phone systems and emergency equipment and improve street maintenance programs. He claims credit for reducing 911 response times and implementing the 211 and 311 non-emergency customer service lines.
"If there's a pothole and you call up, it will get fixed in a couple of days," said Bob Peck, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, a business group which represents many of the region's largest private sector employers. Residents can also renew their driver's licenses and complete most tax and permit transactions online.
Williams has also worked to improve relations with the city's major universities. Educators and researchers have been tapped for boards and commissions. Teaching hospitals at Georgetown, Howard and George Washington universities participate in the city-operated health care alliance.
"We supply $10 million in uncompensated medical care from our hospital to uninsured city residents who come in," said Stephen Trachtenburg, president of George Washington University. "If they're sick, we take care of them, if they can't pay, we eat it," Trachtenburg said.
Williams has also been an unapologetic booster of business development.
"The city is now really focused on 'mixed use,' which allows for residential development on higher levels and street level retail," said Marcia Rosenthal, executive director of the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District. The business group taxes its members to supplement services in a 42-block area northwest of the White House.
"It always helps to have a mayor's office that supports the private sector and doesn't get in the way," Rosenthal said.
Williams has been able to harness a stronger regional economy to help create a credible environment for long-term investment, she said. That's sustained a building boom creating one of the hottest commercial real estate markets in the nation, with an occupancy rate of 96 percent.
"He didn't change regulations, he didn't change zoning. He said to the developers 'we're open for business,' and tax revenues have increased almost 50 percent," said Rich Bradley, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District. The stable operating environment helped lure Costco, Target, Home Depot and Best Buy to open stores and create jobs. It's also prompted development of 9,000 downtown housing units and the opening of numerous restaurants and other attractions.
"The city's getting closer to being a 24/7 destination. It's about 18/7 now," Bradley said.
But Williams and others admit that limited evidence of the economic upturn in some of the city's poor and working class neighborhoods are part of his unfulfilled agenda. While millions of dollars from the affordable housing trust fund has helped build or renovate more than 10,000 homes east of the Anacostia River, the mayor has been criticized for not doing more.
"We still have a major issue with schools, and that is key to continuing our economic renaissance," said Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. She and other business leaders say the D.C. Public Schools are not turning out the workforce needed for the future.
"The city can't work without solid public education in the long run," Williams agreed.
Williams wants to finalize the lease agreement for the proposed new Washington Nationals stadium, and hopes to complete plans for development of the old Washington Convention Center site in 2006.
When he leaves office next January, he wants to run a troubled company or nonprofit institution in need of turnaround expertise.
"I want to take something big that's screwed up, and fix it," Williams said. "That's exactly what prompted me to run for mayor in 1998."