Despite shady history, summer program improves under Vincent Gray

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Local,DC,Eric P. Newcomer,Marion Barry,Vincent Gray

As applications have started to flood in for the mayor's decades-old summer jobs program, D.C. officials hope for continued progress in recovering from a history of blown budgets, payroll problems and program participants being charged with committing crimes while they were on the clock for the city.

In 2010, under Mayor Adrian Fenty, the program went $11 million over budget, costing $34 million instead of the budgeted $23 million. In 2008, it went over budget by more than $30 million.

The program has also had troubles paying workers on time -- and when they got their paychecks, it could be hard to hold on to them for long. Again in 2010, some of the program's participants, wearing shirts provided by the city identifying them as participants, were getting mugged on payday.

In past years, summer employees have been implicated in committing assaults, robberies and even a couple of shootings.

"There was a time when it was not handled very well in the past," said D.C. Councilman Jack Evans. "In the last couple years, they've shown vast improvements."

Patrick Mara, a Republican running in the council's at-large special election, said his thinking about the program has shifted over time.

"It has gotten better, but it's another one of these things that now the District is dependent on because high school students have nowhere to go in the summer," he said.

Under Mayor Vincent Gray, the program's budget has dropped significantly, in part because the city has been more diligent about ensuring that only D.C. residents between 14 and 21 years old are allowed into the program.

"We are definitely going to be well within our budget," said Gerren Price, associate director of youth programs for the Department of Employment Services.

Still, the program is a regular source of debate within the city. This year, Councilman David Catania asked why the program doesn't require a minimum grade-point average, angering Councilman Marion Barry, who created the program many years ago.

There is no grade requirement this year, Price said.

"I know there has been a lot of talk about that over the years," Price said. "Virtually everybody will get an opportunity to participate."

Applications opened Friday, and by the afternoon, the Summer Youth Employment Program had already received 8,500, many of them submitted online as snow began to fall and the threat of inclement weather kept parents off the roads.

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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