District jobs program budget at issue

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010

The job Daren Long had Thursday morning was clear enough. With a brush and bucket in hand, the 15-year-old wearing a paint-splotched T-shirt spruced up the black iron fence at Walter C. Pierce Community Park near Adams Morgan as part of the District's summer jobs program.

By day's end, with the city's leadership caught up in the final hot weeks of a mayoral primary, the employment program for nearly 20,000 young people had brushed hard against questions of politics and fiscal management.

The $22.7 million budget approved by the D.C. Council for the jobs effort has ballooned to $34.2 million -- a 50 percent increase -- according to the city's chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration plugged that gap by moving millions of dollars some council members expected to go to homeless and other anti-poverty programs.

Council members said they were not consulted on the big uptick in spending, and they accused Fenty (D) of a litany of sins, from poor management and misplaced priorities to political gamesmanship and sneaky behavior.

A Fenty spokeswoman, meanwhile, said he is trying to put available federal money to good use for a good cause.

"All we're trying to do is give kids an opportunity to make additional money and have constructive activities leading up to school," said Fenty communications director Mafara Hobson.

The program has faced busted budgets and other problems in recent years, among them people failing to be paid on time for work they did and others being paid for work they did not do, officials said.

Thursday's dust-up arose because Fenty wants to extend the program to seven weeks and two days from the six weeks set by the council.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) voiced concerns about the program Thursday, noting that it had a history of overspending. "We want to see our kids work. But in the interest of full disclosure, we ought to know what the circumstances are," said Gray, who is running for mayor.

Michael A. Brown, who chairs a committee that oversees the jobs program but was away on council business Thursday, offered a blunt critique in a letter circulated to colleagues. He said Gandhi's office indicated that the original budget for the six-week program "was only sufficient to support 3.5 weeks of participants' wages."

"The shortfall has been filled by taking critical resources from our most vulnerable residents in the 'dead of night,' " Brown wrote.

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