Congressional Mystery: The Quest for Mount Hope’s Youth Center

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As budget items go, this one seemed simple: "$3,000,000 for the Mount Hope Center for a youth program." Given the enormity of the U.S. budget, what's a mere $3 million?

Yet out in the real world where people build and maintain programs for youth, $3 million is a big deal. Getting $3 million should be means to do great things for youth, which could be the case with Mount Hope Center, wherever it is.

That's the big question: Where is this program of such merit that Congress gave it millions?

The 10-word item tucked into a lengthy House committee report on the fiscal year 2000 appropriations for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) didn't give a clue. Nor did other budget documents say anything more about the whereabouts of the Mount Hope Center and its youth program.

The hunt for Mount Hope began in November, when a reporter set out to find the center and see about its plans for the money - or even if the center's operators knew about its good fortune.

If they didn't, what fun it might be to tell them.

An Elusive Earmark

Searching for Mount Hope became an adventure in the labyrinth of federal funding.

The 10 words in the committee report are known in congressional parlance as "an earmark." Earmarks work like this: Presumably, a senator or representative (who is nameless in the report) has been sufficiently impressed by the work at Mount Hope to determine that $3 million is so urgently needed that normal review procedures for competitive grants should be bypassed.

Congress gave OJJDP these simple-sounding instructions: "OJJDP is directed to review the following proposals, provide grants if warranted, and submit a report to the Committees on Appropriations of the House and the Senate of its intentions."

To federal agencies, however, the earmarks are orders: Do this, or risk the wrath of Congress.

"Earmarks," also known in the political vernacular as "pork," have critics like presidential contender Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), but even the critics admit that some of the money goes to worthy enterprises.

The problem, some critics say, is that earmarks are spreading like a virus. A recent study by Ronald D. Utt of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington found that the number of earmarks in five of the 13 major appropriations bills doubled between 1998 and 1999. "And from everything I'm hearing, they're spinning further out of control," Utt said, referring the 2000 budget.

Child advocates say proliferating earmarks are cutting into the funds available through normal competitive grant processes. Margo Hirsch, executive director of the 60-agency Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services in New York, notes that of an additional $5.8 million budgeted for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Transitional Living program for runaway and homeless youth in 2000, $1.3 million was already spoken for in earmarks.

"I've never before seen an earmark in the runaway youth appropriation," she said, "and I've been looking at it for 15 years."

Meanwhile earmarks for OJJDP are close to consuming its entire Special Emphasis Program. "The question," said OJJDP Administrator Shay Bilchik when asked about earmarks, "is how do you want your national office to operate?"

The answer from Capitol Hill: almost 90 percent of OJJDP's allegedly discretionary spending for 2000 - more than $37.5 million out of $42.5 million - has been earmarked. Bilchik stresses that the earmarks appear to be "for worthwhile programs."

The Hunt Continues

After the federal budget passed In November, officials at OJJDP knew nothing about the Mount Hope Center - including what state it was in. "Sometimes it's a real challenge to find [the earmarked agencies]," noted OJJDP program manager Jim Burch. "We have to rely on whoever put in there to tell us."

Well, what if the wrong Mount Hope Center tried to claim the money? How would OJJDP know?

But how many Mount Hope Centers can there be?

A few, it turns out.

Initially, the House Appropriations Committee staff offered a reporter no hope of entertaining questions about Mount Hope. Staffers were "on the phone," "in a meeting" or away from their desk for days at a time.

Eventually, John Scofield, a press aide for the committee, said the staff just doesn't have time to be searching for Mount Hopes. "If I started looking for every earmark, that's all I would ever do," he said.

That seemed to confirm another of Utt's observations: "Republicans have raised [earmarks] to a high art."

An Internet search for "Mount Hope Center" initially produced only one, a prison ministry in Hagerstown, Md., not a youth program. This center has one employee and zero expectations that Congress will send $3 million.

"You can come with the smelling salts if they do," said Wanda Singleton, a volunteer there.

No luck, either, at Mount Hope Day Care Center in Providence, R.I. "I wish it was us," said Program Coordinator Stacy Ignagni, noting that the 90-child nonprofit is in an "older building that needs repairs."

Where else to look? The Census Bureau lists eight locales as "Mount Hope": incorporated cities in West Virginia (pop. 1,573) and Kansas (805), a village in Wisconsin (173) and two county subdivisions in Wisconsin (240 and 173) and one county subdivision in Illinois (1,130), New York (5,971) and Alabama (1,781).

No luck at any of those places.

Suddenly, Rochester, N.Y., seemed a possibility. Mount Hope Avenue there passes Mount Hope Cemetery, where Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass are buried. Could that be a clue? And Mount Hope Family Center, which was once on Mount Hope Avenue, is still an affiliate of the University of Rochester, even if the center is now on Edinburgh Street.

You follow? Mount Hope Family Center gets federal grants for work with children - like $600,000 from HHS' National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect to study "resilience in maltreated children."

The center's administrator, Tony Decharco, responded quickly to the query about whether his was "the" Mount Hope: "Where do we go to get the check?"

Alas, the center had just been turned down for a $370,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, Decharco said - neatly illustrating the rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul dynamics of earmarks, with members of Congress choosing the winners and losers.

Thereafter, a woman who answered the phone at Mount Hope Center, a "family growth center" in Lansing, Mich., seemed suspicious about a stranger asking questions about a $3 million grant. She would only give her first name, Dolores

"It's not us," she said, "because our boss would have told us. We're very small."

For the Mount Hope Mind-Body Center in Williamstown, Mass., salvation by earmark would come too late. Its phone was disconnected.

Meanwhile, in mid-December OJJDP was still dutifully hunting for Mount Hope, and House Appropriation Committee staffers again rebuffed reporter's inquiries. "It's not information we give out," said Cordia Strom, the person others in the office identified as knowledgeable about juvenile justice.

Entreaties like, "Doesn't $3 million matter on Capital Hill?" didn't change Strom's attitude. "It's not like a check is cut and sent to a P.O. box somewhere," she said. "You're asking these question too early in the process."

Getting Warmer

Oh, so there's a process. And earmarks are "high art." Could these be clues? Who would have guessed that the mystery of Mount Hope would be resolved at a Dec. 13 gathering at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York City?

Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) arrived at the museum that day wearing a Santa Claus hat. The New York Daily News said he brought "$40 million in federal holiday goodies to 16 Bronx Community groups," including $3.4 million to create a children's art center at the museum. "What would be more appropriate for a man as generous as Congressman Serrano than a Santa Claus hat?" the museum's director told the Daily News.

At the bottom of the article came mention that a "Mount Hope Housing Community" was slated to receive $3.15 million "to acquire a community center." By then OJJDP sleuths had also zeroed in on the Bronx, specifically on the Mount Hope Housing Company, Inc. (MHHC).

Trumpets, please. The hunt for Mount Hope was over.

No wonder it was hard to find. The center doesn't yet exist.

The Dream on Mount Hope

MHHC is a nonprofit community development corporation formed in 1986 to rehabilitate empty or burned out buildings in a predominantly Hispanic and African American neighborhood called Mount Hope. The corporation has completed roughly $80 million of this work and now manages about 1,500 units. It has also helped establish a health care center, an employment service, a credit union and playgrounds.

But the neighborhood still faces challenges. "We need to get the kids off the street," said Mount Hope board member Leona Clardy. "There's no place for them to go."

And some say a community center is a natural project for MHHC. "Mount Hope cut their teeth doing housing," said Mark Jahr, vice president of Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC). "They have administrative strength; they see a range of needs in the community; and they step into the breach."

Also in the breach is Rep. Serrano, whose office says he asked MHHC back in 1997 "if they had a wish list and if so, what would be on top of that list." MHHC opted for a center with a boys and girls club, a computer training center and services for seniors - and they've talked it up ever since, at their annual legislative breakfast and other meetings.

Shaun Belle, MHHC executive director, says the group envisions a $12 million, five-story building near MHHC's Walton Avenue office. But MHHC still needs to firm up the financing and gain official okays for use of the vacant land.

Belle says earmarks don't come easy; he has driven down to Serrano's Washington office six or seven times. "If they see that there's something you're doing, some accomplishments from which you would like to expand, that's a good start," Belle said. Meanwhile, Rep. Serrano "worked behind the scenes," his office said.

Serrano has an advantage: He's now the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary. So it's not just Republicans who've perfected the art. In fact, his support for Mount Hope Center extended to two other earmarks, in Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) appropriations bills. One for fiscal year 1999 was listed under HUD block grants: "$50,000 to the Mount Hope Housing Company of New York City for the renovation of various aspects of a multi-use community center." Belle said that money went for "planning and pre-development costs." Another earmark came in HUD's 2000 appropriations: "$150,000 to the Mount Hope Housing Company in New York, New York, for renovation of a multi-use community center." And that money will go for "the same thing - planning and pre-development," Belle said.

All seems to be going well on Mount Hope, where the neighborhood turn-around from a decade ago is said to be miraculous. But then that word "renovation" stands out in those HUD earmarks. How can you renovate a vacant lot? Could that be a problem?

Gathering Shadows

It turned out that OJJDP was not pleased, either, because it looked like $3 million of its shrinking "discretionary" funds might be going for a non-existent youth program in a center that hasn't been built. "We're looking at it right now," Bilchik said of the earmark.

"It may be we won't fund that grant," said an OJJDP official who asked not to be named. Belle is confident that Serrano can figure out how OJJDP can grant the $3 million when the youth center actually exists.

"We don't need that money today," said Belle. MHHC hopes construction will begin by the end of the year; so work with real teens can't possibly start until well after the end of the fiscal year. But while OJJDP money cannot be used for construction, the $3 million can help MHHC get construction financing, said William Frey, vice president and a director of the Enterprise Foundation, which has pledged to lend its fundraising expertise to the Mount Hope effort. "It shows that you actually have a program - an occupant for the center that will pay the rent."

And it turns out it's also okay to "renovate" a vacant lot with HUD money - or do planning and development - if the HUD money comes through an earmark. "Earmarks are not subject to normal HUD regulations," said Deborah Pickford, a HUD public affairs specialist (who specializes in earmarks). "No one is going to quibble. It's strictly what the representative thinks is appropriate."

The representative thinks it's appropriate. "This center is just the beginning of a neighborhood revitalization effort," Serrano said in a written statement. As for other communities that need youth services, what can be said?

Happy hunting.