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Residents set '06 budget priorities
(Published March 7, 2005)

Special to The Common Denominator

Unaffordable childcare, unaffordable housing, lack of adequate support services for the homeless and disabled, and lack of funding for youth and special education programs were noted as some top concerns for D.C. residents at a March 5 public forum.

The Fair Budget Coalition and the Legal Aid Society of D.C. organized the meeting to get an early start at putting public pressure on the D.C. City Council before the fiscal 2006 budget is passed this summer. Twelve panelists spoke during the meeting, at which council members Adrian Fenty, Kwame Brown and Phil Mendelson were present. Also attending was Kimberley Johnson, an aide to Councilman Jim Graham.

"It's unfortunate that they didn't get to hear the breadth of issues," said Lee Mason, co-organizer of the meeting and member of the Fair Budget Coalition, when asked about the low turnout of council members. "They missed out" on a way to help them make proper decisions, he said.

"There is an urgent need for quality, accessible and appropriate childcare for children with special needs here in D.C.," said Michelle Hawkins of the Kennedy Institute and one of the 12 panelists. Hawkins, a mother of an autistic child, said that even though disabled children younger than 19 are eligible for childcare in Washington, it is not always available to them. As a result, many parents have to go to Maryland to seek assistance, she said.

"The mayor should be active and make sure that children are cared for now," said panelist Daynna Dixon of Empower DC, an organization that provides reduced cost childcare to parents. "We're just trying to survive. That's why we're here," she said, citing that spending millions of dollars on a baseball stadium does not stop the escalating crime, the loss of jobs, the hungry children and the gentrification sweeping the city.

Panelist Doreen Hodges quit her job to take care of her child, after finding various problems with the special education system staff at her son's school. "We cannot send our children to schools with our special education system," she said. Hodges said she plans to sue the school district. "You will see me again," she said to the city council members as the audience gave her a standing ovation.

Panelist Adrienne Craven voiced concern about the need for more tutoring and after-school programs and employment opportunities, especially for teenagers. These programs would give kids the "life experience and training that will help them down the road," she said.

Panelist Cecelia Santo spoke about the need for financial assistance for those who cannot afford to further their education. Santo said that while she would like to go back to school, it's extremely hard to do when she's struggling to make ends meet. Panelist Phillip Sanders voiced his outrage about lack of benefits for disabled veterans.

Panelist Oscar Meyer spoke about the problems of overcrowded homeless shelters, and about the increase in lack of affordable housing. Panelist Asantewaa Nkizumah-Tune later added that overcrowded tenant courts are also a huge problem for those who are trying to seek legal assistance for their housing problems.

"We have enough resources. It's a matter of priorities," said Martina Gillis of the Fair Budget Coalition.

"We don't want the same thing happening this year as last year," said Councilman Brown, who spoke of the estimated $377 million budget surplus that the council will be looking to spend. "We just want to make sure we have a fine balance," he said.

Councilman Mendelson stressed the importance of making sure that agencies actually deliver their services before they are given more government funds. There's been a substantial budget surplus and D.C. government has provided more than enough resources for schools, but the money is not getting down to help on a local level, he said.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator