Community Groups Brace for Budget Cuts in D.C.

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 19, 2009

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has slashed about $12 million in earmarks out of his fiscal 2010 budget to help plug a gaping deficit and calm growing criticism that noncompetitive city grants are out of control.

The revised budget that Fenty (D) submitted to the D.C. Council late Friday was highly anticipated as the city grapples with a $666 million revenue shortfall over the next two years, much like Virginia, Maryland and other jurisdictions across the country.

The 60 percent reduction in earmarks -- from $20.5 million to $8.3 million -- makes up a small percentage of Fenty's overall cuts, but it could cause the biggest uproar. Major nonprofit organizations and smaller community groups have become more dependent on government dollars as private donors stop writing checks.

Meanwhile, critics of the one-time grants have long pushed for reform, and this year's budget crunch could mark a change in attitude among the mayor and the council when it comes to earmarks. Last year, Fenty and the council divvied up $47 million among dozens of groups. This year, "the total was smaller, but it was still leaving a bad taste in everybody's mouths," said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

Council sources say Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who could not be reached to comment yesterday, is considering the elimination of all earmarks. The council is scheduled to vote on the budget July 31.

In a letter to Gray on Friday, Fenty said: "The national recession has affected families, businesses and governments in the District, and across the country. The District is performing well relative to many jurisdictions, but we must make some tough choices to prepare for the future to secure the District's fiscal sustainability."

Groups large and small could take a hit.

For example, the National Council of Negro Women and the Phillips Collection were set to receive $1 million each for capital improvements. Under Fenty's new proposal, each would get $400,000.

Dozens of community and neighborhood groups, some slated to receive less than $25,000, also will be affected.

Michael Sessa, president of the Metro DC GLBT Community Center, was disappointed when he learned from a reporter that the mayor was proposing to give the group $200,000 instead of $500,000. The group planned to use the money to buy a building for its operations, which include condom distribution and treatment for substance abuse. Sessa said the smaller grant would force the center to rethink priorities. "A half-million dollars doesn't go far when you are trying to purchase real estate in D.C. We will not be able to purchase a building with $200,000," he said.

The earmarks have come under more scrutiny in recent weeks with the arrest of council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). Although a charge that he was stalking ex-girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt was dropped, the allegation exposed a contract he had given her and irregularities in earmarks to community groups in Ward 8 that appear to be under the control of his staff.

The council has launched a special investigation into contracts, and council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) announced last week that he wants the inspector general's office to investigate Barry's earmarks.

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