Monday’s hearing on the District’s troublesome Summer Youth Employment Program lasted more than eight hours. Many witnesses — most of them SYEP participants who, I gather, had been rounded up and possibly coached. Also invited government witnesses and some top-flight advocates for homeless and other poor D.C. residents.
Many pleas for the requested seven-day extension — a chance to earn more, learn more and have something to do besides hang out on the streets and get into trouble.
Cogent opposition from the Brookings Institution’s Martha Ross and the advocates, whose principal concern was the diversion of funds from homeless services, cash assistance and better job training for TANF participants and a swifter, more accurate case management system.
A blast from the DC auditor on the administration’s chronic practice of ignoring SYEP budget constraints. “Irresponsible … a threat to other vital District programs and the District’s fiscal stability.” Violations of the federal and District anti-deficiency laws, which, among other things, prohibit agencies from authorizing spending in excess of approved budgets.
An account of the run-up to this year’s raid on the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund from the Associate Chief Financial Officer. A raking over the coals for keeping the Council in the dark.
A strong defense of the SYEP from Joe Walsh, Director of Employment Services. The largest program in two decades. The largest in the country, in fact. Most participants from the three wards with the highest unemployment rates. About 30% of them from families who receive public assistance. The usual enumeration of benefits to participants. Diverse administrative improvements.
Considerable distress and frustration on the part of Councilmembers, who rightly felt jammed by the last-minute extension request and, more importantly, the administration’s utter disregard for the budget process.
Seems they thought the $22.7 million appropriated for the SYEP was what the administration was supposed to spend, not a minimum that could be freely augmented from other accounts without so much as a heads-up to the oversight committee.
Seems that Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, believed that the Department of Human Services would spend the TANF Emergency Contingency funds according to the allocations submitted during this year’s budget deliberations. Blindsided by the department’s transfer of $8.4 million to DOES.
But there really wasn’t much the committee could do — or the full Council either. Back in May, DOES had met with CFO staff about the costs of a program enrolling 21,000 participants for seven and a half weeks, rather than the authorized six. CFO staff told DOES it had funds for at most four weeks of wages. DOES then identified the TANF funds as the way to close the gap.
It assured CFO staff that the Emergency Contingency funds could be used because 80% of participants had addresses indicating they were eligible for TANF. Apparently no one in the CFO’s office questioned this dubious methodology.
So now SYEP participants are owed about two weeks of wages that can only be paid by tapping a source outside the approved budget. And since the Council found out about this only days ago, it hardly had time to go back through the budget and find another way to cover the overrun.
But it did what it could. It soundly defeated the proposed extension. This reportedly leaves $4.3 million in TANF funds that ought to go back to DHS.
It also leaves some big issues on the table. Where will DHS find the additional funds to provide shelter or other housing for the District’s many homeless families? Will it use any of the funds passed back to provide emergency relief to the families who’ve got no place to stay? What will happen with its TANF job training and other initiatives?
And what can the Council do to ensure that whoever directs the SYEP doesn’t again commit to a larger, longer program than the budget can cover?