City crime prevention program faces budget cuts

Bernard Gaither stands on the porch of his family's home on Green Street. His father, George Gordon, is seated behind him. Green Street is one the roads targeted for the city of Rock Hill's Weed & Seed crime prevention program.
Bernard Gaither stands on the porch of his family's home on Green Street. His father, George Gordon, is seated behind him. Green Street is one the roads targeted for the city of Rock Hill's Weed & Seed crime prevention program.

A highly touted project aimed at confronting drug problems and lifting morale in a band of center-city Rock Hill neighborhoods faces major budget cuts this year.

Federal money given to the national Weed & Seed initiative has been slashed 25 percent from last year, news that shocked local volunteers relying on the program to gain a foothold in the city's most crime-ridden areas.

Community groups could get less help with drug and alcohol treatment, summer camps for children and domestic violence classes for low-income families. That's because the cuts leave the city with access to $150,000 in federal cash, $50,000 less than what had been expected.

"We had finally got to the point where we were recognized (by neighbors) as contributing in the community," said Lonnie Harvey, chairman of the city's Weed & Seed committee. "People were coming to us. And the government chooses to sort of tie our hands by taking part of it away."

The cuts were made to the U.S. Department of Justice, which launched Weed & Seed in the early 1990s to combat the crack cocaine epidemic then roiling many cities. The idea is to "weed out" drug dealers and criminals, and "seed in" social services by awarding grants to churches, nonprofits and other groups.

Federal dollars are used for stepped-up policing, job training, after-school events and mentoring, all with the larger goal of empowering regular people to take ownership after a few years.

Harvey's committee will meet in the next week or so to map out specific changes. For now, a number of activities stand to be eliminated or scaled back:

• "Strengthening Families," a summer program for parents trying to overcome alcohol or drug problems overseen by Keystone Substance Abuse Services. It has been canceled, spokeswoman Jane Alleva said.

• "Bad Boyz," a mentoring program for fourth- and fifth-graders at Sunset Park Elementary School put on by the local Kappa Alpha alumni chapter. The "bad" stands for "Bound and Determined" to graduate.

• An end-of-school-year awards banquet planned as a celebration for students and parents was called off, KA coordinator Byron Putman said.

• Counseling for domestic violence victims and parenting classes on nutrition and nonviolent punishment offered by the local nonprofit Safe Passage. The number of activities will be reduced, director Peggy Payne said.

The city also might scale back efforts to keep neighbors informed. Less money could be spent on brochures and fliers used in the past to advertise cookouts, health fairs and youth activity days, officials said.

"I guess I've gotten too old to be angry," said Lillian Gilmore, a Weed & Seed co-organizer who works with the guardian ad litem program. "The programs we had approved, I felt, were good programs. They had done their legwork and everything."

The cuts were part of a spending bill approved by Congress at the end of last year. President Bush called for consolidating Weed & Seed with similar programs as a way to streamline the process of awarding money to cities.

Bush and fiscal conservatives in Washington have sought to rein in federal spending in recent years, in part to control skyrocketing budget deficits driving up the national debt.

Some lawmakers say tinkering with Weed & Seed is the wrong way to do it.

U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., opened hearings this week on a budget proposal to restore full funding next year to Weed & Seed and other crime-fighting initiatives. Spratt, a York native and chairman of the House Budget Committee, criticized Bush for overlooking local law enforcement initiatives.

Spratt's plan "provides more money than the president's budget for these programs, in keeping with Democrats' commitment to making America safer," spokesman Chuck Fant said in a statement.

As for this year, some groups plan to kick in with their own money -- or become more thrifty.

"We definitely don't want to do less," pastor Bernard Gill of Taking the City Ministries said. "It's a blessing to see families that change their ways. You can't replace that with a dollar amount. You have to keep doing what you're doing and just hope for the best."

Taking the City Ministries enters Weed & Seed neighborhoods for weekend outdoor services, complete with a live band, praise teams and food.The church follows up afterward with outreach to families.

Delta Sigma Theta, a historically black sorority with an alumni chapter in Rock Hill, owns a two-story house near the South Central neighborhood. It's used for children's reading and mentoring sessions with young girls, among other activities.

"We're just going to do what we've always done," chapter president Edwina Barnes said. "Figure out how to do more with less."

One neighbor's take

"It used to be rough. You heard fighting, shooting, stuff like that. The cops had to stay over here. Now, you see kids playing up and down the street. They fixed it up around here."

-- Bernard Gaither, whose parents live on Green Street in the South Central neighborhood. The street was targeted for help through the Weed & Seed program.