Denver mayor Wellington Webb has defended his decision to locate a detention center for juvenile curfew violators in upscale Washington Park by saying federal funding could be jeopardized if his SafeNite After Curfew program doesn't run "city-wide." But the federal community development block grant that so far is the program's only source of funding expressly prohibits the city from spending the money at the Washington Park Recreation Center. The reason: Washington Park isn't located in a low-income neighborhood.
As a result, the city has been borrowing money from its recreation budget to pay the salaries of two full-time staffers at the Washington Park site and to help pay the salary of its newly hired juvenile curfew program administrator. City officials say they can't estimate how much money will need to be borrowed; records on file at the city auditor's office show that the center's crisis counselor earns $29,035 per year, while its "therapeutic activities instructor" gets $24,192. Program administrator Maureen Barnett, who still serves as executive director of the nonprofit Refugee Assistance Center in addition to holding down her city job, earns a salary of $32,568.
Denver Safe City Coordinator Beth McCann says the recreation budget will be reimbursed, in part with a $63,000 appropriation from the city's general fund. But that expenditure has not yet been approved by the city council. City councilwoman Mary DeGroot, who represents the Washington Park area, accuses the administration of forcing the council into a vote on popular recreation dollars instead of the controversial curfew program.
"I'm extremely upset," says DeGroot, who is considering a mayoral run against Webb in the next election. "Because what they're going to do then is come to us towards the end of the year and say, `Oh, gosh, if you don't give us this money, then we won't have enough money to repay the recreation budget.'"
City budget director Margaret Browne defends the patchwork funding: "I guess the perspective I'd like to see is that out of a $617,000 total program, $63,000 is general-fund dollars." But Browne adds that she can understand the ire of DeGroot and other councilmembers. "I think what they're really upset about is the program will require a match from the general fund, and they weren't informed prior to starting the program," says Browne. "To some extent, they're justified."
McCann, who says she doesn't know when the administration will ask for a council vote on the general fund money, contends that the city often borrows against its own funds in anticipation of federal grants. If the council ends up voting down the $63,000, she says, "then we'd have to regroup and see if there were other sources of funds." However, she adds, "my understanding is we do have the votes."
Fred Weiss, director of finance for the parks and recreation department, says there is sufficient money left in the annual recreation budget to cover the loan, which he prefers to describe as a budget arrangement "done for simplicity's sake."
"In my mind, it's just another piece of business handled by my office and my staff," adds Weiss, who in addition to his duties for parks and rec now has been assigned to oversee the curfew program's payroll.
So far, the SafeNite program employs about fourteen people, including a recently hired "data entry administrative assistant" who earns $23,017. And the recreation budget isn't the only funding source being raided to keep the program afloat.
The administration is also borrowing from the police budget to pay overtime to the police officers involved in the project. The annual cost for the officers--4.2 of them, according to a city budget summary--is estimated at $292,000. The administration plans to reimburse the police budget with a separate federal grant that totals $294,000. Those dollars are due to begin arriving next month, says McCann.
Would the project's federal funding really be threatened, as the mayor has suggested, if the Washington Park detention center was relocated? Beth Truby, a community-development program specialist with the planning department, says the block grant carries no such provision. Webb spokesman Briggs Gamblin now says he believes the mayor wasn't "speaking to a specific regulation" but was "just referring to making the grant more viable."
Residents in Washington Park have complained that using their recreation center to house teenage curfew violators makes little sense from a law enforcement view. Only 35 violators were taken to the center in the program's first six weeks--most of them from the city's southwest side, where councilwoman Ramona Martinez has said she'd like the detention center to relocate. According to a map distributed by the Safe City office, only three arrests were in the vicinity of Washington Park.
The city's two other curfew sites are at the Ashland Recreation Center in northwest Denver and the Park Avenue Senior Recreation Center on the city's northeast side. Administration critics have accused Webb of placing the center in predominantly white Washington Park primarily to fend off possible criticism from the minority community. But several Hispanic activists have argued that it makes more sense to put it in Martinez's district, which appears to have a greater problem with curfew violators.
Webb has offered to set up a special committee to study whether or not to keep the detention center in Washington Park. But in a letter to residents dated August 19, the mayor strongly defended his choice of the site, noting that "we must all do our part to help address violence and crime, which is a city-wide problem."
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In the meantime, the mayor, who recently announced a new "fourteen-point strategy" to fight crime, has continued to beef up the Safe City office he formed last year, in the process creating a new job for McCann, who had been his manager of public safety. Now, Safe City has hired former public relations worker Britt-Inger Bryant to handle "community relations." According to McCann, Bryant's $24,372-per-year position includes performing administrative tasks, dealing with community residents and "going to a lot of meetings I can't attend."
One of Bryant's first duties was to help implement a new city policy enacted last month that requires journalists to make appointments before showing up at the three detention centers and puts limits on "the placement and movement of the media" once reporters or photographers get there.
The Safe City office now devotes much of its time to overseeing the curfew program, even though it lacks the budget to fund it. And in fact, Safe City lacks the budget to fund its own staff. Records on file at the auditor's office indicate that McCann's administrative assistant, Patti Weiss, is paid out of the city's street-maintenance fund.