D.C. summer jobs $11M overruns hurt homeless services

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Local,Leah Fabel

D.C. Council members blasted Mayor Adrian Fenty's administration Monday over the revelation of more than $11 million overspent on the Summer Youth Employment Program.

What started as a $23 million budget to pay 20,000 young people minimum wage for jobs from alley cleanup to administrative duties has grown to about $34 million, according to District finance officials who testified before the council. The overruns come as Fenty has proposed extending the six-week program to 7 1/2 weeks in an effort to combat joblessness prior to the start of the school year.

Council members and some city officials, however, called the overspending "reckless."

"The lack of fiscal discipline in the design and execution of the Summer Youth Employment Program is irresponsible, poses a threat to other vital District programs and the District's fiscal stability in these austere economic circumstances," said D.C. Auditor Deborah Nichols.

An audit of the program in fiscal 2007 and 2008 revealed cost overruns of more than $56 million over the two years, Nichols said.

The council was asked by the administration last week to approve the use of various funding streams to close the 2010 gap, including more than $8 million from a federal stimulus grant for the District's poorest residents. That money had been expected by the city's homelessness service agencies for use in providing emergency shelter and longer-term housing.

Marta Beresin, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, testified that the District has seen a 36 percent increase in homelessness since the start of the economic recession.

"I've never seen a crisis like we're facing now," she said.

Fenty's office, however, pointed to a letter from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services encouraging use of the funds for youth employment. By using the stimulus grant to extend the program to 7 1/2 weeks, participants would earn, on average, an extra $200.

"To borrow a phrase from my daughter, this blows," said Councilwoman Mary Cheh.

Cheh and her colleagues voiced exasperation with not learning about the summer job program's funding shortfall until last week, even as the Office of the Chief Financial Officer knew of it in May.

They likely will vote Tuesday on whether to advance all of the funds to the program, thus allowing the extension of time, or to split the dollars and give about $4 million back to homelessness services.

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