Janitors union using wrong tactics in attack on D.C. tax assessments

The union representing janitors who clean commercial office buildings in Washington appears to have raised some legitimate questions about the way those buildings are assessed for tax purposes.

The tactics employed by the union as a way of calling attention to the matter are, nevertheless, bush league and counterproductive.

Blocking bridges and streets and raising a ruckus in front of the homes of commercial property owners will serve only to generate hostility toward the group, making it more difficult to win support for its cause.

Leaders of Local 82 of the Service Employees International Union seem convinced that these tactics will help win friends and generate more property tax revenue for the District. The union's boisterous "Justice for Janitors" campaign, which showed signs of escalating last week, succeeded only in getting some of its members arrested and alienating people whose help it needs most in addressing its allegations.

Local 82 contends that the District will lose at least $ 41 million in tax revenue this year because of what it describes as widespread underassessment of office buildings. The situation is made worse, union officials maintain, by building owners' manipulation of the appeal process to win huge property tax rollbacks.

Millions of dollars of potential revenue are being drained from the District as a result, Jay Hessey, Local 82's executive director, claimed in a statement issued by the union earlier this month. According to Hessey, $ 1.8 billion worth of commercial real estate in the District is not being taxed.

Meanwhile, Hessey added, the District has lost more than $ 200 million in the past 10 years from appeals of assessments. In 1995 alone, the District will lose another $ 24 million, he estimated. Based on the current trend, Hessey said, the loss will total $ 100 million by the year 2000.

That's pretty strong stuff, not to mention Hessey's characterization of property owners as "money-hungry commercial landlords" who refuse to pay their fair share of D.C. property taxes.

Those are serious allegations that cannot be ignored, notwithstanding questions about the accuracy of the union's claims -- to say nothing of its ulterior motives in mounting the campaign.

Coming as they have amid growing pressure on the District to tighten fiscal management and balance the budget, the union's allegations certainly warrant attention on Capitol Hill.

If not, then the matter ought to be brought to the attention of the soon-to-be-appointed independent financial control board, which will be given authority by Congress to oversee the District's finances.

Local 82 does not appear, however, to want a hearing in the usual forums where its allegations could be stated for the record and possibly followed up with an investigation and the implementation of reform measures. It has chosen instead to dramatize its beef in the streets and in disruptive forays into public and private buildings.
In so doing, Local 82 has muddied its credibility.

Its idea of justice is to single out and continuously harass a prominent developer, Oliver Carr, as the symbol of what it says is wrong with the assessment and appeal process.
In its concern about the loss of tax revenue in the District, however, Local 82 has been conspicuously silent amid the debate over the tax-exempt status of hundreds of organizations that have their headquarters here. Why have union leaders chosen, for example, not to question the tax-exempt status of Fannie Mae?

And what about a reciprocal commuter tax? Would Local 82 support such a tax, knowing that some of its members live outside the District and that nearly two-thirds of the income earned in the city is taxed elsewhere?

"This isn't just about 5,000 janitors; it's about issues that concern all D.C. residents," union spokesman Manny Pastreich was quoted as saying at a rally last week.

Pastreich and union leaders would have us believe that their campaign is aimed at preventing wealthy landlords from getting huge tax breaks at a time when the District is wrestling with a fiscal crisis. The overriding concerns, the union now claims, are the effects of spending cuts on education, health care, public safety and basic services.

Bear in mind, however, that when Local 82 began pressing its "Justice for Janitors" campaign a few years ago, the District's fiscal crisis and spending cuts were not the burning issues they are today. Now local janitorial workers are being joined by union members from Baltimore, Detroit and Central America, of all places, ostensibly in a campaign to "Save Our City."

Save our city, indeed. Organizers of this kaleidoscopic campaign may have started out with good intentions, but it appears now that "Justice for Janitors" involves a good deal more than Local 82's outrage over commercial property tax rollbacks.