D.C. Nonprofits Revisit Budgets as Earmark Cuts Loom

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

For some D.C. nonprofit agencies, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's recent proposal to sharply cut earmarks was more bad news in a troubled economy -- the sudden reduction of grants they had been counting on.

Yesterday, leaders of many local groups began to pore over their budgets in search of ways to scale back. A variety of services and expenses would be affected, including centers where low-income families seek tax advice and a dance floor for community arts performances.

"It's tough out there," said Mary Brown, executive director of Life Pieces to Masterpieces, an arts program for boys east of the Anacostia River, who said she would need to rely more on volunteers and less on staff if the group's $100,000 earmark was trimmed to $40,000.

A growing budget deficit and increasing anger over earmarks prompted Fenty (D) to cut one-time grants from his revised fiscal 2010 budget, which he submitted to the D.C. Council on Friday.

The roughly $21 million in earmarks, appropriations to nonprofits recommended by D.C. Council members or the mayor, included $18,000 for a safety campaign for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association; $100,000 for the Greater Washington Fashion Chamber of Commerce; $250,000 for programs for teenagers in Anacostia; and $1 million to modernize a building for the Washington Ballet. Fenty's new plan would cut them across the board to about $8 million.

Critics of earmarks say the noncompetitive grants reward political supporters rather than the most-effective programs, fueling distrust of local government, and should be eliminated.

But some leaders of nonprofit agencies said they have to rely on earmarks because donors are giving less during the recession, even as demand for services has increased. Other government support has declined as well.

A coalition of city leaders said the mayor's overall plan would strip an estimated $55 million from D.C. government programs intended to help some of the city's poorest families. Those cuts come from "safety net" programs, such as cash assistance for families, job training and literacy services, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, which researches budget and tax issues.

"The word that comes to mind is 'devastating,' " Ed Orzechowski, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities, said in a statement released yesterday by the Coalition for Community Investment, a group of business, nonprofit and other organizations in the city. "We all recognize that the budget gap needs to be closed, but we must do so protecting those who simply cannot shoulder the impact."

Colleen Dailey, executive director of Capital Area Asset Builders, a group that helps families save, manage and invest money, said she would prefer not to rely on an earmark. But in other years, the city's tax office was so inefficient that her organization couldn't get funding before the tax year ended, she said.

The group's $250,000 earmark would be cut to $100,000, which means there would be fewer sites to help people with their taxes and publicize tax credits for low-income families. She said she is frustrated that the cuts would be about 60 percent across the board, rather than based on a program's effectiveness or the recipients' needs.

The reduction of a $75,000 earmark to $30,000 would prevent the Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company from buying a portable dance floor and sound system for public performances, said Daniel Phoenix Singh, president and artistic director.

Many nonprofit leaders said they weren't shocked by the cuts, given the economy. "We were always surprised that [the money] came through," said Robert Egger, president of the D.C. Central Kitchen, whose earmark would be reduced from $250,000 to $100,000.

"When we get it, it's a great gift. We rock with it but never bank on it," he said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company