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Native Intelligence
Nonprofits become victims, too
(Published October 22, 2001)

By DIANA WINTHROP

Last year Mayor Anthony Williams was riding high, enjoying national attention for his efforts at a revival of the nation’s capital. The tourist business was booming and the hotels were full. Williams was touting the city surplus as an indicator that he was "in control" even though the city recovery was tenuous at best.

The events of Sept. 11 dramatically changed the outlook for the nation’s capital. In just a month, Washington has essentially imploded and is facing a looming $250 million deficit in fiscal 2002, which many believe will become even larger. The city is in a financial free fall, with no guarantee that money will be available to help the city recover.

Already, about 17,000 people have been laid off or are expected to soon lose their jobs. Congress appropriated $40 billion in terrorism relief. New York City has asked for $54 billion in assistance. There have been roughly two dozen other requests for help. Mayor Williams asked for $900 million in assistance.

A year ago the mayor seemed untouchable. Now, as he prepares for his anticipated campaign for a second term, no one wanted to talk for attribution, citing the mayor’s "thin-skinned personality."

The city council has approved an unemployment assistance package which offers a few morsels for people who lose their jobs. Under the recently passed law, people will received $50 more a week, a few more weeks of unemployment and a six-month moratorium on taxes on their unemployment income. There is some money available for small business loans, but not much else.

The other victims of the Sept. 11 tragedy are now just beginning to appear. Nonprofit organizations in this city have been an integral part of the recovery. They have housed, clothed and fed the most vulnerable citizens. They have done this by virtually relying on the goodness of residents to donate money. Now those donations have dried up. Food pantries are reporting a drop in donations. The annual AIDS Walk sponsored by Whitman Walker Clinic reported a substantial drop in donations, and throughout the city the so-called safety net is tearing.

Councilman Jack Evans, who chairs the finance committee, says the federal government should help. "We have had a terrible catastrophe," Evans says. "The city is dramatically affected by the tragic events of Sept. 11." Evans likened the recent financial free fall to a "ship torpedoed with everybody trying to throw life rafts to everybody." But Evans is emphatic when he says, "We can’t bail out everyone who needs help. A lot of good organizations need help."

Evans is bent on making sure social services don’t bankrupt the city. He sees himself as the prime fiscal watchdog. Evans says the city "will not allocate anything that is not already in the budget." He points the finger at the federal government, though he is kind of murky on how money from the $900 million economic assistance request can go to nonprofits. Should feeding people be considered economic assistance? "Organizations, nonprofits, the council and the mayor’s office need to work together to help the community," Evans says.

So here will be this $900 million pot of money from which various factions throughout the city will be trying to grab a piece.

The Chronicle of American Philanthropy reports that seven out of 10 Americans have donated to help the families of the Sept. 11 tragedy. The flow of money has been unprecedented. Public service advertisements have urged Americans, horrified by the terrorist attacks, to "give blood or money": just do something.

The money is flowing too fast for many people, who are beginning to ask the question, "Who gets the money?" Should it be based on need or should everyone, regardless of their financial status, receive compensation? The food pantries, homeless shelters and crisis centers would like people to remember that there are other innocent victims of the terrorist attacks.

***

A few weeks ago I reported a first sighting of a campaign 2002 poster. The "Draft Kap" committee had begun plastering parts of Ward 6 with the bright red-and-white poster. Kap, known in his other life as Keith Perry, is readying himself to challenge Ward 6 Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose in the Democratic primary next year. But Perry’s supporters have already angered some potential voters in Ward 6 by the torrent of signs in the ward. His supporters shouldn’t worry so much about angering voters just yet but, rather, the Board of Elections and Ethics, if it does its job.

It is against the law to post campaign signs this early. The law bans sign posting until 60 days before an election and requires removal after 30 days. But Perry shouldn’t fret. After all, the enforcement of the laws on the books governing campaigns is widely known as a joke among political activists and irritated citizens, who see old campaign posters as a blight on neighborhoods.

The three biggest scofflaws in the past four years have been Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, At-Large Councilman Harold Brazil and Benjamin Bonham, a former member of the school board. All three still have signs hanging above streets,, on phone wires and way up telephone poles, too high for concerned citizens to try to remove on their own. The elections board staff couldn’t be that blind to those ugly remnants of previous campaigns.

The board needs to slap lawbreakers with some heavy fines for polluting our neighborhoods or at least hire one of those bucket trucks and send the lawbreakers the bill. Of course, knowing Mayor Williams’s penchant for ignoring campaign rules, it is unlikely we’ll see any aggressive prosecution of scofflaws soon.

***

The writer, a native Washingtonian with more than 25 years in the news business, spends her nights toiling as an editorial producer for a network morning news show. Contact her at diana@thecommondenominator.com with your news tips.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator