By Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
The D.C. Council will take up a proposal today to limit the city's controversial Summer Jobs Program to six weeks, a move that could save taxpayers millions of dollars but would leave thousands of teenagers unemployed during the month of August.
The proposal comes amid growing concern from the council that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has let the program, which guarantees a summer paycheck to District residents 14 to 21 years old, spiral into an unaffordable social welfare program.
The council will debate a bill by member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) to shorten the jobs from about nine weeks to six weeks, setting the stage for a showdown with Fenty.
The program had lasted six weeks until last year, when Fenty extended its length and directed his staff to give a job to every young person who wanted one. But because of mismanagement, the city was unable to track who participated or whether they were working.
"We had a program that became a model for the country . . . but last year it became a disaster," said Barry, who started the nationally watched program three decades ago during his first year as mayor. "This council is determined not to let that happen."
Joseph P. Walsh, director of the Department of Employment Services, warned of serious consequences for individual youths and the city if Barry's bill is approved.
"District youth will lose two million hours of productive work experiences, and $300 to $500 in pay over the summer," Walsh wrote in a letter to Barry yesterday. "Your proposed action will leave thousands of District youth, who would otherwise be engaged in constructive activities and gaining valuable work experience, with idle time until school begins in late August."
Last summer, more than 21,000 job-seekers overwhelmed the system, and auditors discovered that the D.C. Department of Employment Services couldn't track where the students worked and for how many hours. Auditors learned the city had issued paychecks to thousands of young people who were ineligible or did not show up for work. They also identified 203 participants who were not city residents, costing taxpayers $276,154.
In all, the city spent $55 million on last year's program, about twice as much as had been budgeted.
Fenty has imposed several changes this year, including requiring participants to fill out electronic timecards daily.
There are already signs of trouble.
Last week, participants received e-mails that were meant for other participants and listed the wrong job assignments. A second set of e-mails blamed "computer error." Walsh said the problem has been corrected.
Officials have not finalized how they will pay the salaries of 22,000 young people who signed up for the program this year.
Fenty has requested $45 million, about twice what the council budgeted. He has proposed tapping the Community Benefit Fund, a revenue fund created when the city approved the construction of Nationals Park.
Most council members oppose going into the fund, which was established to pay for neighborhood improvements.
By reducing the program's length, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said, the city can provide jobs for all applicants and stay within budget.
"We don't have the budget to cover the numbers of kids that we have," Gray (D) said. He said a six-week program "provides a nice chunk of time for kids to work but also provides somewhat of a vacation."
Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said it's imperative that the council find the money to pay for nine weeks of employment. If the program is shortened, she said, the youths will lose their employment in late July, during what traditionally is the hottest stretch of summer.
"What are these kids going to be doing?" asked Bowser, who plans to vote against Barry's proposal. "We are going to be dealing with them one way or another. You can support them now on the front end, give them productive services, or we are going to be paying for it on the back end."
Walsh warned that a last-minute change could confuse employers -- including 70 private sector partners, 200 community partners and the White House -- that are expecting the youths to be at work for nine consecutive weeks.
Barry discounts suggestions that a six-week job is too short.
"This is not about job training; it's about introducing young people to the world of work," Barry said.