- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

The District’s social services providers and advocates are fearing deep funding cuts in the city’s fiscal 2005 budget after a report that found the District has struggled to spend enough on the poor while management costs continue to rise.

“Letters are being sent out to the mayor and to the [D.C. Council] members in hopes of saving some programs,” said Angela M. Jones, director of D.C. Action for Children, an advocacy group.

“We know that the city, like the rest of the country, is under a budget crunch,” Miss Jones said. “But you have to look at priorities, and you can’t keep cutting funding for kids.”

The concerns among several services providers are being fueled in part by a report by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute last week that criticized the D.C. government’s funding of social service programs.

Since 1990, the District has not spent enough on the city’s poorest residents even as spending to improve management of city agencies rose sharply, according to the report.

The report said the city government has a done a good job of holding the line on overall spending, but housing, employment and other social services programs have been shortchanged over the years by funding cuts.

The study was released amid budget negotiations by city leaders searching for ways to close a looming budget deficit. Mr. Williams told reporters on March 17 that his administration has closed the budget gap to about $80 million. He is to introduce his spending plan to the D.C. Council on Monday.

Betsy Johnson, director of the D.C. Council on Agencies, which represents area nonprofit groups, said she has told members for years not to depend on the city government for funding.

“We’re seeing a lot of folks who are very worried right now,” she said. “You can’t balance the budget on the backs of human services providers. You have to be able to provide services to residents in the city, and if you don’t, then the city just doesn’t improve.”

The institute’s report noted that D.C. taxpayer funding for employment services declined 80 percent since 1990, affordable housing by 54 percent, human services by 33 percent and mental health by 21 percent.

At the same time, funds for three city agencies — the Chief Financial Office, the Office of the Inspector General, and the Corporation Counsel — have risen 34 percent.

Most of these increases occurred after 1996 and appear to reflect efforts following the District’s fiscal crisis of the mid-1990s to improve management of the city government, according to the report.

The same period also saw an explosion in the number of high-paying management jobs in city government. The Washington Times reported last year that 575 city employees earned at least $100,000, compared to one $100,000 employee 10 years earlier.

“I think it’s important that the city have the best managers available,” said George Ware, a member of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (D.C. ACORN), an advocacy group. “However, that shouldn’t be the be-all and the end-all to our problems.”

The institute’s report says the bulk of spending increases in city government since 1990 came in the areas of Medicaid, child welfare and education.

Tony Bullock, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, last week called the budget negotiations “painful,” and said not everybody is going to be satisfied when Mr. Williams introduces his spending plan.

“We do have a lot of competing interests and not everybody is going to be satisfied,” Mr. Bullock said. “But we don’t have a magic cash machine in the basement of the Wilson building.”

Mr. Bullock did not identify which parts of the budget city officials plan to cut.

According to interviews with providers, city officials are negotiating over separate proposals to restrict eligibility for Medicaid and foster care services.

“I think all of us are going into the budget with considerable trepidation,” said Vincent Gray, executive director of the Covenant House, which provides housing and job training to city youth.

“It’s clear that there is likely to be more cuts in the human services arena,” Mr. Gray said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen; I think we’re all just lurking into the unknown right now.”

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