More Light And A Lot More Heat On DC Summer Youth Employment Program

August 5, 2010

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?


DC Council Committee Fast-Tracks Big Tax Giveaway

March 9, 2010

I’d just posted my rant on business tax breaks when the DC Council Finance Committee held a hearing on the proposed Global Security and Aerospace Industry Tax Abatement Act of 2010–the creatively-named tax giveaway package for Northrop Grumann.

Under Council rules, hearings of this sort are supposed to be announced 15 days in advance so that D.C. residents and other interested parties have an opportunity to get on the witness list and prepare their testimony.

The notice for this hearing was posted just six days in advance–two of them weekend days.

Could it be that Finance Committee Chairman Jack Evans didn’t want us to hear from the opposition–or to have their views on the public record? Or did Northrup Grumann, which is playing the competition for all it’s worth, demand cash on the barrel head? Or did Evans decide he’d better get the vote over with before concerns about the adverse budget impacts of the giveaway escalate?

No matter. The hearing is over. Alert opponents did testify. And a couple of co-sponsors are reportedly wavering.

Still, we concerned citizens deserved a fair chance to have our say–and to hear what a broader range of witnesses might have said if the committee had followed the rules.

It’s things like this that lead so many to feel that the political process is rigged. And, at least sometimes, they may be right.

Next Round In the DC Homeless Services Crisis

October 13, 2009

This Wednesday at noon, the DC Council Committee on Human Services will hold a roundtable hearing on the District’s winter plan. Or at least that’s the formal topic for the hearing. The dialogue will undoubtedly be broader because, at this point, what’s at stake is the longer-term future of homeless services in D.C.

Since the hearing was scheduled:

  • Homeless service providers have been told that their contracts will be reduced by an average of 30%. Five shelter providers have warned that their clients are at immediate risk. One has said her organization will have to close a housing program for families.
  • Interested parties have locked horns on the size of the homeless services budget cut. We’ve now learned that it’s apparently somewhat over $12 million. Most of this cut represents funds in the federal block grant for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. These were formerly used to supplement the local homeless services appropriation but have been diverted to other programs.
  • Clarence Carter, head of the DC Human Services Department, has issued a statement committing only to funding for the shelter capacity and other services identified in the winter plan, capped at the Fiscal Year 2009 level. No assurance that any funds will be available for the rest of the year.
  • Some Councilmembers, including Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, have expressed dismay at this turn of events.

So the hearing promises to be lively and potentially consequential.

A coalition of homeless service providers, advocates and homeless people has scheduled a press conference on the steps of the John A. Wilson building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, at 11:00 a.m. This will be a great opportunity to learn more about what’s happening and likely to happen if the Council or administration higher-ups don’t step in to restore the homeless services budget.

You can influence the outcome of this crisis by calling or e-mailing Mayor Fenty, the City Administrator and members of the Human Services Committee. Contact information for committee members is in the Council directory.

Also attend the press conference and/or hearing if you can. A big turnout will show Councilmembers that their constituents care about the safety and well-being of their homeless neighbors.

Earmarks Not Gone After All

August 27, 2009

Susie Cambria, the expert whose blog keeps us clued in on what’s happening with the District’s budget and policy processes, tells me that some earmarks that were in the original Fiscal Year 2010 budget aren’t really gone. They’ve just gone underground.

True, they’re not clearly identified in the revised Budget Support Act. And true, Council Chairman Vincent Gray stated that Council actions to address the projected shortfall included “elimination of one-time designated grants [earmarks] for FY 10.”

But the Council and the Mayor have agreed that certain agencies have agreed that certain agencies will provide grants of specified amounts to organizations that were formerly to receive funding as earmarks. The big difference is that only a plugged-in expert like Susie knows how to recognize them for what they really are.

I complained before about a lack of transparency in the budget. But this really takes the cake!

After Earmarks

August 26, 2009

Most people, I think, agree that earmarks are bad public policy. Legislators allocate millions of our taxpayer dollars to whatever organizations or projects they like–mostly those in the communities they represent.

These earmarks aren’t subject to public hearings. And fellow legislators don’t question them. It’s an unspoken compact: If I don’t question your earmarks, then you won’t question mine. We’ll all benefit come re-elections time.

Here in the District, we had a fine flap over some of Councilmember Marion Barry’s earmarks. In the wake of this, the City Council decided to eliminate all earmarks from the Fiscal Year 2010 budget. A quick, easy to way to save more than $22 million and avoid further embarrassments at the same time.

So now more than 130 organizations–social service providers, health education programs and clinics, youth groups, cultural programs, environmental projects, economic development, neighborhood improvement, job training and education programs, child advocacy services and more–are without funds they counted on.

Council Chairman Vincent Gray was undoubtedly right. Better wipe out all earmarks than try to pick and choose among them. To see why, take a look at Title VIII in the original Budget Support Act.

But where do we go from here? The District’s safety net consists largely of nonprofit organizations that combine private donations with public funds to deliver essential services to its poorest residents. These organizations can’t simply absorb lost earmarks.

The Fiscal Year 2010 budget is all but a done deal. But the Fiscal Year 2011 budget cycle is about to begin. Perhaps the Mayor and the City Council should agree on a no-earmarks policy and institute a better alternative.

In many areas, they already identify critical needs, appropriate funds for them and then award the funds based on a competitive grants process. Why not take a hard look at services formerly supported in part by earmarks and establish competitive grants for the the most critical of these too?

DC Council Blocks Benefit Cutoffs For TANF Families

August 4, 2009

The City Council took its next-to-final action on the District’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget last Friday. It went along with a lot, though not all, of what Mayor Fenty had proposed. But it choked on his proposal to impose harsher sanctions on families in the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program. And a good thing too.

As I’ve written before, the Mayor’s proposed budget included plans to reduce TANF benefits by 50% when the adult recipient had been subject to lesser sanctions and still wasn’t meeting the program’s work requirements. If the adult still didn’t comply, all benefits to the family would have been cut off–even the funds to support the children.

The City Council struck these proposals from the legislation. However, this doesn’t mean that the Income Maintenance Administration, which administers the District’s TANF program, has no tools to encourage compliance.

It’s perfectly free to enforce its existing progressive sanctions rules. These allow the agency to reduce benefits so that they cover only the children in the family and for successively longer periods each time the adult fails to comply with the work requirements. If the money’s there, IMA can provide the proposed bonuses for full compliance too.

Unfortunately, the Council left intact the Mayor’s proposals to make eligibility for TANF contingent on an applicant’s completing an orientation and an assessment.

Some states have used requirements like these to discourage enrollment. That could happen here too. Recall that federal rules give states incentives to reduce their caseloads. At the very least, the requirements could delay delivery of urgently-needed help.

The City Council will take a final vote on the budget legislation in September. It would be well-advised to strike the new eligibility requirements. Let IMA first show that it can ensure all TANF applicants timely, appropriate orientation sessions and timely assessments that accurately identify “skills, prior work experience, employability, and barriers to employment.”

Then IMA should explain why eligibility should hinge on anything more than the criteria it’s been using. What does it hope to gain from creating more hoops for poor people to jump through before they’re even admitted to the program?

DC Council Hearing On Emergency Shelter Crisis

July 20, 2009

Last Friday, Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, held a hearing on emergency shelter capacity in the District. He wanted to know if the system is in crisis.

The figures certainly suggest it is:

  • Between April 1 and June 17, women’s shelters were full beyond capacity more than half the time.
  • In June, there were, on average, four vacancies per night for women and just one for families, indicating there were probably nights when people were turned away.
  • About 30 families are still in what’s supposed to be additional cold weather space at DC General–as Wells says, “an awful place for children to be.”
  • At least 285 families are on the waiting list for shelter. The usually-reliable Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says it’s actually 311.
  • No one knows how many families didn’t register when they found out how long the waiting list is.

But Clarence Carter, head of the DC Human Services Department, doesn’t see a crisis because he’s got a plan to relieve needs for emergency shelter. He says that:

  • Within months, the department will be using $7.4 million it’s received through the economic recovery act to provide more short-term assistance to families on the verge of homelessness.
  • It will also be coordinating planning so that individuals discharged from institutions have a place to live.
  • In upcoming months, the District’s Housing First initiative will expand to provide long-term supportive housing for 160 more individuals and 24 more families, thus shifting long-term users out of the shelter system.

But what will happen to homeless women and families in the meantime? And what if needs for housing assistance continue to grow? Carter says not to worry. The department has enough funds to cope.

Of course, that’s what agency heads are supposed to say when an administration has no intention of requesting more funds–let alone when it’s trying to close a budget gap with virtually no tax increases.

Still, it’s disturbing to hear such optimism when all the evidence indicates that needs for emergency shelter and affordable housing will continue to outstrip resources for some considerable time to come.

More disturbing yet when the Mayor’s gap-closing plan would eliminate the modest increases approved for Housing First and the Local Rent Supplement Program–funds that could help some homeless or about-to-be-homeless people get an affordable place to live.