District jobs program budget at issue

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010; B04

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.

More than $8 million in added funding for the summer jobs program came from money the District received under a federal poverty program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, according to Gandhi.

Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) accused Fenty of politicizing the youth program in the midst of a campaign. "He's using these kids and their parents as pawns in a political game," Barry said. "It's despicable. He's trying to jam the council: 'If you don't approve this, you are taking money from the kids.' "

But Hobson said the administration is trying to use federal money to extend the program. She noted that federal officials allow the temporary assistance funds to be used for employment programs.

"The Obama Administration has made it a priority to use federal stimulus funds to put young people to work this summer," Fenty said in a statement. "Our administration supports this policy and we believe the dollars that have been allocated by the Obama Administration should be used to extend the 2010 DC Summer Youth Employment Program."

Brown is holding an oversight meeting on the program's overall financial picture Monday, and Gray said he is planning a vote on Fenty's request to extend the program that afternoon.

Joseph P. Walsh, the District's director of the Department of Employment Services, said residents and law enforcement officials support extending the program. Nearly 70 percent of the participants live in wards 5, 7 and 8, "parts of the city hit hardest by the national recession and where teen unemployment is highest," he wrote in a letter to Gray. A survey of participants found that 83 percent said they would not have employment if it weren't for the effort.

Youth worker Long said the job, his first real paid gig, helps keep him from lounging at home and sleeping late, as he did a couple of summers ago. Last summer, he did volunteer work with his mother. But this year, the days of painting and poison ivy removal have meant having his own money.

He finally bought the iPod Touch his mom had declined to purchase, and he has filled it with jazz and blues and some rock. "It made me more careful about how I spend my money, because it's my money," he said.

He has learned responsibility and how to live by work's rules, Long said. And he knows what he wants his real job to be: sports commentator. "I'd like to talk about something I love all day -- and get paid for it," he said.

On whether the program should be extended, Long's math was easy: "Of course. It's more money."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company