By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
The bill for the District's problem-plagued summer jobs program has ballooned to more than $50 million, exceeding its original budget by at least $30 million, and spelling more trouble for the program, which has struggled in recent weeks with major payroll and organizational issues.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) requested last week that Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi allocate $20.1 million from an emergency fund, and yesterday a frustrated Vincent C. Gray, the council chairman, dashed off a letter demanding an explanation for the costs in the closing weeks of the program.
Gray (D) said yesterday that he is in "shock" about Fenty's request, which he learned about Friday. The council approved an additional $10.8 million earlier in the summer and had allocated $20.5 million at the beginning of the summer.
"You want to do whatever you can for kids," Gray said, "but one of the things you want to teach them is a sense of responsibility."
This request "affects the financial future and the financial stability of the city," he said, and the budget overrun was "entirely preventable."
Multiple attempts to reach the mayor and the official in charge of the program for comment were unsuccessful.
The Fenty administration made expanding the summer jobs program a top priority, but it has struggled to manage the expansion. This year the program included more than 19,000 students, an increase of more than 6,000 from the year before. Payroll problems have been massive, with thousands of students underpaid or not paid at all. More than 700 students sat idle in an auditorium for weeks because of administrative problems, and some students have said they got paid even though they never did any work.
Other council members were also concerned.
"This has been an expensive debacle," said Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), chairman of the committee that oversees the program. "Maybe if they hadn't paid people that hadn't worked, they wouldn't need so much additional money."
Schwartz and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) asked the D.C. inspector general late last month to audit the program, and Schwartz will conduct emergency oversight hearings in September.
The chief financial officer's office said it would provide the requested funds.
"It's a legitimate request," said David Umansky, a spokesman for Gandhi. "We're not going to let the kids not get paid."
Schwartz said she was surprised to hear about the mayor's request for an additional $20.1 million for the program, which was first reported yesterday by the Washington Examiner. Schwartz said she had not been told of the cost overruns.
"You would think maybe Summer Spencer [head of the Department of Employment Services] would have made us aware," Schwartz said.
Fenty's letter, dated July 30, asked for "up to $20,100,000 . . . due to several factors including the tremendous increase in program registration." He wrote that the amount needed might be "reduced significantly" depending on how many students remain in the program until the last day, which is Aug. 22.
Fenty wrote that the Department of Employment Services had enough money to cover the extra expenses but that council action would be required to allow that to happen. The council has been in recess since mid-July, so Fenty requested money from the District's contingency reserve fund in the meantime.
Gray said that if the mayor had asked for the money before the council recessed, there would have been hearings. He also said the mayor's lack of direct communication with him about the matter was "highly unusual, especially given the high visibility and profile of this program."
The program has two more biweekly paydays. Some students were being paid to attend summer school, but the school program ended last week; students in that program will be transferred to other sites, said Diana Johnson, spokeswoman for the Department of Employment Services.