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D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams wants to create a model program to counsel and aidvictims of violent crime in the District. And he believes he already has the $18 million to do it. But some of the city’s overseers on Capitol Hill don’t view it that way. In what has the potential to become one of the city’s nastiest budget battles this year, the mayor and the D.C. Council are calling on Congress to approve the spending of excess cash in the D.C. Crime Victims Compensation Fund on victims assistance services. The program is funded through criminal fines, D.C. Superior Court filing fees, and Justice Department grants. Since 1997, the Superior Court has been depositing about $8 million a year into the account. But the fund currently pays out far less�roughly $1.5 million a year to victims to cover the costs of funerals, crime scene cleanups, health care, and other expenses. The result: about $18 million in surplus funds is now the focus of a tussle over who will control how it’s spent. City leaders want to use it to set up a central facility where victims could make claims for compensation, meet with in-house counselors, and get referrals to outside victims’ rights groups. “This is an amazing opportunity for the District of Columbia to do something good for crime victims, ” said Jenna Mehnert, the local official in charge of the effort for the mayor. “ The federal government — by letting us use the money collected from convicted criminals — would allow us to do that. “ Under Williams’ proposal, which is still being designed, private assistance organizations such as the D.C. Rape Crisis Center would get a much-needed infusion of cash and other resources, advocates say. “There really isn’t any network where the city provides money,” said Carlyle Hoff, executive director of My Sister’s Place, which offers shelter and counseling for victims of domestic violence. Hoff adds that only one-third of her agency’s $1 million annual budget comes indirectly from the federal government. Almost all the rest, she said, is obtained through fund raising. “There is very little, if any, D.C. money, so we have to go elsewhere, ” Hoff said. Some Hill staffers, arguing against the city’s plan, say the District’s proposal is too unformed and point out that the federal law authorizing the fund allows only for direct payments to victims�not to assistance programs. “They are asking for a change in federal law, and that’s not going to happen, ” said one Hill aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “That money does not go to programs, ” the staffer adds. “ It goes to people, and that difference must be understood before we get off square one. “ DEPOSIT SLIP The fight over the surplus funds has been brewing for nearly a year and surfaced amid federal scrutiny over how the D.C. courts were spending their budget. In 1997, management of the crime victims fund was transferred to Superior Court after the city failed to make good on victims’ claims. Later that year, after passage of the D.C. Revitalization Act, D.C. court officials were allowed to choose where they wanted to deposit fees and fines collected in court cases — either in the U.S. Treasury or the victims fund. The court opted for the fund. But when the court system ran into budget trouble in 1998, court officials tried to tap into the victims program to fund court operations. Then, last year, court leaders once again asked Congress for permission to use some of the victims fund to pay for new technology at the courthouse. Both requests were denied. Toward the end of last year’s budget negotiations, House appropriators directed the court to deposit any surplus into the U.S. Treasury at the end of this fiscal year. Since then, D.C. and Justice Department officials have been scrambling for federal support to ensure that the funds remain in the city. Their argument is that the money was generated in the District and therefore should be spent on city services. Some federal lawmakers, however, maintain that the D.C. Revitalization Act gives Congress the authority to absorb any unused money in the crime victims fund. Earlier this month, the D.C. Council approved Williams’ plan to increase spending for victims compensation. It raised the caps on health costs and other expenses. The proposal also directs $200,000 of the fund to be used to finance a commission on domestic violence against women. Any surplus would then be transferred to the mayor’s office to be used for victims assistance programs. WHOSE MONEY IS IT? But with fiscal year 2001 budget negotiations already in full swing, some Hill officials say it is unlikely that the District will be able to keep the funds. The only way the city could fund Williams’ proposal, Hill sources say, would be to cut back in other areas. “As a budget issue, we can’t give them that money back,” said the Hill staffer. Adding to the difficulty are House Republicans’ contentions that the District’s budget bill must be 4 percent less than the current year’s fiscal plan. Still, some local and federal officials are ready to do battle. “Here we have people as diverse as Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, [D.C. Delegate] Eleanor Holmes Norton, the mayor, and the White House all in agreement that the money is the city’s money and should be available for the city to allocate,” said one official working on the matter. Hastert and Norton did not return calls seeking comment. This official adds that President Bill Clinton has made it a priority budget item, meaning that if Congress insists on taking the funds, then the White House may threaten to veto D.C.’s budget bill. The Williams administration, meanwhile, has already been looking at ways to spend the money. Just last week, Mehnert sent out surveys to 100 victims service providers asking what their needs are. Mehnert said she is also trying to set up some focus groups consisting of both victims and assistance providers so the city can accurately meet those needs. “We have a victims compensation program that makes people whole financially, ” Mehnert said. “ Now we need a program that makes them whole emotionally.”

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