Groups grapple with cuts in budgets

Every afternoon after the children tumble off the school bus and into her makeshift classroom, Melva McClinton greets them with a reminder: Where you come from doesn't matter. You're a family for as long as you are here -- and a nonviolent one at that.

"We can work things out without putting our hands on each other," McClinton warned Thursday after a few kids got too unruly. "We need to learn how to do that now when we're young. If you do that when you're my age, that's called assault. You can go to jail for that."

Inside Liberty Community Church, a one-room cinderblock building at the far end of Rock Hill's Green Street, McClinton is trying to give a dozen or so children something productive to do with their afternoons. But her job isn't getting any easier. The free after-school program is among a number of upstart local projects grappling with growing demands at a time of scaled-back support from Washington.

Federal money given to the national Weed & Seed initiative has been slashed 35 percent from last year, to the surprise of local volunteers relying on the program to establish stable social programs in the city's most crime-ridden areas.

News of impending cuts to local Weed & Seed projects had not been publicly disclosed until The Herald reported them Thursday. A citizens' committee will meet in the next week to adjust its overall budget and reach final decisions on what to reduce.

Liberty now expects $7,500 in aid from Weed & Seed this year, 20 percent less than what the church had requested. The money is to be used for snacks, computers and expanded activities.

"I didn't realize how great the need was until I actually got here," said McClinton, who earns a small salary for the part-time job. "Most of the parents work or have other obligations. A lot of them are on fixed incomes and they just don't have the money. "So this is where everybody comes."

Doing more with less

At least nine churches, nonprofits and community groups had applied for grants. All will get some money, but many will get less than requested.

"We're all getting used to the fact we're going to have to work smarter and harder with less," said Ray Koterba, director of the city's Housing & Neighborhood Services Department.

The irony is that Weed & Seed has earned praise from Republicans and Democrats because it emphasizes what's known in government-speak as "deliverables," hard numbers that can be tracked to show how, and if, specific programs are making a difference.

For example, police discovered that after a door-to-door canvassing, calls for law enforcement service rose 48 percent in the neighborhoods targeted for help.

"We've done a lot of good work in the last few years, and that's not going to end," said City Councilman John Gettys. "To think a dent in funding from the federal government is going to thwart what we've been after is not an accurate view."

The Weed & Seed reductions are part of a larger push by President Bush and lawmakers in Congress to rein in spending, control deficits and make government more efficient.

U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., says his budget proposal for 2009 calls for replenishing the program in full. First, it must survive scrutiny from Congress and the White House in negotiations that are only now heating up.

"We need all the support we can get," said Sandra Oborokumo, a retired federal employee now on the Weed & Seed committee. "Fifty-thousand dollars is nothing compared to what's being spent overseas. They spend more than that in an hour."

An ambitious start

Three years ago, a group of elected officials, police higher-ups and others packed into a community center in the Hagins-Fewell neighborhood to hold a news conference celebrating the arrival of Weed & Seed.

"We have a unique opportunity to make a change," Police Chief John Gregory said at the time. "I think we're going to see a reduction in crime. But more than that, we'll see a reduction in fear."

Gregory's prediction materialized in at least one sense. Arrests for crimes such as drugs, assault and burglary rose 45 percent in the first year, including one murder charge. Calls for police service rose 48 percent.

But now, the drop in support comes at a crucial time because organizers are trying to transition from law enforcement to morale-building outreach.

Other cities have taken a more public-minded approach in responding to the cuts. In Pittsburgh, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced the changes and implored volunteers to keep up their efforts.

"It's frustrating," he told listeners. "The good people of Pittsburgh, our staff and the community leaders at large will just roll up our sleeves and do more with less."

People in Rock Hill are now left to cope with a similar burden.