Mayor Fenty's job-creation plan questioned by D.C. Council member

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh says the claims can't be realized in the short term.
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh says the claims can't be realized in the short term. (Courtesy Of Claire Duggan - Courtesy Of Claire Duggan)
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 20, 2010

It felt like an old-time revival this week at Covenant Baptist Church in Southwest Washington. The pews were filled. The gospel choir rocked. And in the pulpit, the guest of honor, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, promised to help struggling Ward 8 by funding an ambitious new jobs program to ease unemployment.

The mayor committed to partnering with the 50-church Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) to create up to 700 jobs over four years by weatherizing 2,000 to 4,000 houses in Wards 5, 6, 7 and 8. In a statement, WIN said it planned to use $10 million to $20 million annually from the Sustainable Energy Trust Fund to pay workers for weatherizing the homes of low-income residents for free. In a separate statement, Fenty (D) pledged to fund the "District of Columbia Weatherization and Residential Retrofit Goals" from "a variety of sources," including the trust fund.

But D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh, chairwoman of the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, which oversees the fund, said it does not contain that much money. The fund has about $7 million "that couldn't possibly be devoted only to weatherization projects because there's a whole variety of projects to which the money is dedicated, under the law."

Cheh (D-Ward 3) said city hall is working to create green jobs through energy conservation projects, "but we shouldn't raise hopes that these claims will be realized in the short term. It could be this year or next. It could be a year or more. We're ramping up to provide jobs, but not at the pace or timetable that things are being suggested."

Those details weren't mentioned at Covenant Baptist on Monday, where almost a thousand people filled the standing-room-only sanctuary and an overflow room downstairs. In Ward 8, where the unemployment rate is almost 30 percent, people are desperate for jobs. Cars and buses lined South Capitol Street outside the church.

The issue is sensitive because the city has fallen short before on promises to provide jobs to District residents, including during construction of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Nationals Park .

At the stadium site, an agreement between the District, the main contractors and the region's major unions called for half the journeyman construction hours -- the most lucrative jobs -- to be performed by residents. The actual hours worked by residents were slightly more than half that.

The contractors blamed residents' poor education and poor training. According to a Brookings Institution report, the city had more job opportunities -- about 700,000 -- than residents in 2006, but only "a third of those who work in the District live here."

The lack of jobs contributes to the District's overall unemployment rate of 12 percent and hurts city coffers as $200 million in potential tax revenue flows to the suburbs. The federal government forbids the District from taxing the income of nonresidents.

The Rev. Christine Wiley, Covenant Baptist's pastor and a member of WIN, touched on the public's skepticism about the city's promises. "All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads to poverty," she said during the event, addressing Fenty.

"We've heard a lot of talk . . . but no jobs in the end," Wiley said.

Fenty said in his statement that he would require contractors doing weatherization to work toward the District's goal of hiring people who are city residents. The city fell well short of the same goals on previous construction projects, which turned away residents on the grounds that they weren't qualified for apprenticeships and had failed examinations, including tests to detect alcohol and drug abuse.

The Rev. Lionel Edmonds, another WIN member, said supervision by the city and its partners would ensure that District residents get the weatherization jobs. Workers would be trained by the Laborers International Union and paid $13.25 to $25 an hour, depending on the task, he said. Low-income homeowners' houses would be weatherized for about $5,000 each.

"We will only train folks once we have a job for them," Edmonds said. Homeowners would sign up to weatherize their properties. Edmonds said middle- and upper-middle income homeowners could secure weatherization loans of up to $10,000 through the Property Assessed Clean Energy finance program.

But, Cheh said, "we're not anywhere near actually getting ready to put money out the door." She said there might be confusion by WIN and Fenty over how the funds are meant to be used. The city would first have to issue millions of dollars in bonds and find someone to manage the project.

"When we do get there, weatherization will be a part of it," she said. "This may be a project that could be realized, but to speak about it as if it's right around the corner may be a little more than the facts can bear."

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