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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 04/24/2012

Prince William Rainbow Riding Center’s request for $211,000 from county attracts controversy


Steven Muck sits on Amigo, one of the specially trained horses at the Rainbow Therapeutic Riding Center in Haymarket. The center is seeking $211,000 in funding from Prince William County, which some say is a lot for one charity to receive from a local government. (Sarah Lane - The Washington Post)

UPDATE: The county board did not consider the funding at Tuesday’s meeting, and will instead consider it in August with the carryover budget, county spokesman Jason Grant said.

ORIGINAL POST: No one denies that the nonprofit Rainbow Therapeutic Riding Center in Haymarket provides a terrific horse-riding experience for children with autism, brain injury and other disabilities. But when the center requested more than $178,000 in Prince William County funds to pave its parking lot, on top of a $33,000 “community partner” grant from the county, political observers from all sides of the spectrum started raising questions.

The one-time capital improvement for the equestrian center is controversial because the group already has about $700,000 $350,000 cash in the bank, its financial records show. A land deal several years ago enabled the Rainbow center to sell its own land and relocate to 45 acres of county land near Silver Lake in a 35-year lease without any rent payments. (Update: Executive Director Debi Alexander said the audit report on the website contained old figures, and that Rainbow has spent $350,000 of its cash reserve to upgrade its riding facility.)

“They raise my taxes,” said conservative activist Greg Letiecq, “to give it away to a charity that serves people outside of Prince William County,” referring to a recent Board of Supervisors meeting where Fairfax County families stood up to endorse the funding. “It’s outrageous.”

The county board is scheduled to vote today on the $211,000 allotment to the center. It’s a sensitive subject because the recipients would seem to be so worthy, yet seemingly already well-funded.

Debi Alexander, the Rainbow center’s executive director, said the one-time $178,000 payment is to be used to pave the gravel parking lot, which is difficult for wheelchairs and horses to navigate, and to heat and cool the building. “We serve a very underserved population in Prince William County,” she said. “How anyone can question the county supporting the most vulnerable people in society, I just don’t get it.” She said 81 percent of those served are from Prince William.

Part of the resentment comes from Rainbow’s relocation several years ago to Silver Lake, which had a master plan for enhancing recreation. Elena Schlossberg, a land use activist and blogger, said no county money has gone toward that master plan.

“That minimal master plan should be completed,” Schlossberg said, including a picnic pavilion, playground and community garden, “so all citizens have access to Silver Lake, rather than 100 from Prince William County. You have how many thousands of children who could be served by Silver Lake, and by the Chinn Community Center?”

The county supports numerous charitable organizations, including the Red Cross and the Boys and Girls Club. But The Post’s Jeremy Borden reported Monday that 12 organizations, including Northern Virginia Family Service and Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault had been cut to zero.

Schlossberg noted that a charity receiving $33,000 from a local government “is a lot of money. If the county has $200,000 and they want to put that into a grant process so other nonprofits can apply, I think that would be more fair.”

Jason Grant, the Prince William County spokesman, said that “Rainbow Riding provides a valuable service to the autism community” that the county government cannot.

He also noted that the center is on county property. “So it’s an asset we’re improving” by spending the $178,000, Grant said. ”It’s not like we’re doing it on private property.”

Supervisor John Jenkins (D-Neabsco) said he had supported the center since it was created, and that it needed its parking lot improved. He said he wasn’t aware of the one-time capital improvement request, but that he was confident it would be closely reviewed by the county board.

Some of the criticism of the county’s funding of the center has focused on Supervisor Wally Covington (R-Brentsville), whose wife is on Rainbow’s volunteer board of directors. In November, Covington tried to donate $100,000 from his “discretionary funds” account to Rainbow, then withdrew it when questions were raised about a conflict of interest in giving taxpayer funds to his wife’s program.

Alexander rose to the Covingtons’ defense after the supervisor was criticized, saying the family had volunteered thousands of hours to Rainbow and that “I say a prayer of thanks every night for the Covingtons and all of the volunteers who make our program possible.”

This time, Rainbow’s funding request is going through the standard budget process, one of the criticisms when Covington used his discretionary fund. Budget numbers show that each of the supervisors had at least $120,000 to spend however they choose, subject to the board’s consent, and that Covington had $482,535 in his fund, at the end of the current fiscal year. The concept of discretionary funds is still being batted around by Prince William politicos — no other jurisdiction in the area has them.

Covington did not return a call and e-mail seeking comment.

Alexander said Rainbow Riding served 114 people last year, including 63 from Forest Park High School with varying levels of autism. “There are so many facilities for able-bodied people,” she said. “There aren’t enough facilities for disabled people anywhere.”

By  |  05:00 AM ET, 04/24/2012

Categories:  Prince William County, Government | Tags:  Rainbow Therapeutic Riding Center, Debi Alexander, Wally Covington, discretionary funds

 
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