GLAA testifies on OHR FY98 budget: April 1997

Testimony on Proposed FY 1998 Budget
for the Office of Human Rights

Committee on Government Operations

APRIL 7, 1997

Mrs. Patterson, Members of the Council, and Fellow Citizens:

Good afternoon. My name is Craig Howell. I am Secretary of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the nation's oldest continuously active gay and lesbian civil rights organization. Our President, Rick Rosendall, has been unexpectedly detained at his office and sends his regrets. Thank you for giving us this opportunity to testify on the proposed FY 1998 budget for the D.C. Office of Human Rights (OHR).

For the past several years, we at GLAA have been vigorously protesting the shrinking staff and the resulting case backlog expansion at OHR. We are gratified that at least some people high up in the District government finally seem to be listening. Evidence of the growing recognition of the crisis confronting OHR can be found in this excerpt from the section dealing with human rights enforcement in the FY 1998 Proposed D. C. Budget and Financial Plan (page L-88):

"Programmatic Issues. There are two significant issues facing the Department of Human Rights today: (1) a diminished investigations staff to process the pending inventory of complaints of discrimination; and (2) the need to upgrade the agency's information technology systems.

"The agency's staffing has declined significantly over the past four years. The staff investigators have been reduced from 14 to 2 for the entire city."

Having boldly identified the problem at hand, the budget document shows little commitment to do much about it.

In an ensuing section entitled "Budget Summary," the document declares: "The proposed total budget from all funding sources is $810,000, a decrease of $140,000 over the FY 1997 Adjusted Budget. The total FTE positions proposed for FY 1998 is 13, an increase of 1 FTE."

We understand that most of the $140,000 decrease reflects a drop in the funding OHR expects to receive from the federal EEOC because of spending cutbacks at the national level. But even local funding will drop $14,000 to $704,000 in FY 1998. This is the result of the loss of a $35,000 transfer from the Department of Public Health due to the Control Board's refusal to allow OHR to fill the position of AIDS-Related Case Coordinator following the death of the last staffer to hold that position. (We are gratified to hear Ms. Winona Lake of OHR tell this committee that the agency still expedites all AIDS-related complaints, so that such cases are generally processed within 6 months.) As the budget document points out: "The FY 1998 budget reflects a decrease of 40.5 percent from FY 1996 actual expenditures."

We suppose we ought to be grateful that somehow OHR expects to squeeze one more full-time position out of a diminished budget in FY 1998. But we'll have to start bailing a lot faster than that to keep this ship afloat. This proposed budget will do little to eliminate the persistent 3- to 4-year backlog of cases that has plagued the agency in recent years.

We are delighted that Mr. Gerald Draper, the head of the Department of Human Rights & Minority Business Development, frankly told the committee in response to your question, Mrs. Patterson, that the proposed FY 1998 budget for OHR is not adequate and that the agency could well use at least $100,000 more to hire one more investigator, one more intake counselor(there is only one now), and support staff. He aptly described the current situation as "scary." We heartily commend Mr. Draper for his candor and would only comment that OHR would need more than one additional investigator to eat into their backlog significantly.

It is the Council's duty to help reorder our city's priorities so that OHR's backlog is brought back under control as rapidly as possible.

The hopelessness of the current situation was vividly illustrated for us last month when someone called the Mayor's office to complain that the gay bar where he worked was practicing blatant racial discrimination in both admissions and employment practices. The Mayor's office, very wisely we fear, did not refer this person to the Office of Human Rights; they referred him to us at GLAA. If the Mayor's office has no confidence in OHR's ability to achieve quick justice, why should anyone else?

The only alternative to OHR for victims of discrimination is a lawsuit. But court actions are also long-lasting, can be prohibitively expensive for many residents, are costly for the government, and are designed for adversarial confrontation, not peaceful conciliation.

During this committee's recent hearings on Bill 12-34, Councilmember Carol Schwartz pointed out that there might be a negative fiscal impact for the city if reforms in OHR operations encouraged more people to avoid court actions and turn to OHR instead. We would observe that if more cases are filed with OHR — whether because of operational reforms or because an increase in investigative staff cuts back the backlog — then fewer cases will be filed with our courts, saving them money. Since OHR can settle up to half the complaints that go to mediation (an option not available in our courts), complaints should be resolved more quickly through OHR than through the courts — resulting in a net positive fiscal impact for the District government overall.

The D.C. Human Rights Law of 1977 calls for a gap of merely 120 days between the time someone files a discrimination complaint and the time OHR makes a decision on probable cause. It is time to put this ideal into practice. 120 days is not so unreasonable; we heard earlier this morning that HUD expects state agencies to process housing discrimination cases in just 100 days. We therefore urge the Council to authorize the funds needed to hire enough investigators and other staff to eliminate the backlog by FY 2000. The exact target date is not as important as the commitment to end it by some date and then to apportion resources accordingly so that this commitment can be kept. As it is now, we are merely drifting aimlessly, with no plan in sight for resolving the problem.

We realize that the District is currently under unprecedented fiscal pressure. But we reject the approaches that have been used by the District's elected officials for many years to avoid facing up to their responsibilities. In particular, we reject the across-the-board budget cuts that they have inflicted upon the worthy and the unworthy alike, and their overreliance on attrition to cut the city's payroll. OHR has been hammered throughout this decade, first by the systematic cannibalization of its investigative staff by the Minority Business Development section of the present Department of Human Rights & Minority Business Development, and more recently by the attrition process. OHR — and the clients they serve — have suffered more than their share.

It is the joint responsibility of the Mayor and the Council to decide which functions are vital and which are expendable. The philosophy of across-the-board budget cuts and attrition inevitably means that District government priorities are set by accident and that no city programs function adequately. We believe that the interests of the District's population in general — and of our lesbian and gay residents in particular — will be far better served if choices on spending cuts and program eliminations are made by our own elected officials rather than by an unaccountable Financial Control Board or by a homophobic Congress.

We know your job is tough. But making the tough choices is precisely what you are being paid to do. The Office of Human Rights represents one of the core functions of our city government; its budget and status should reflect that importance. Thank you for your interest.

See related testimony on mandatory mediation (March 1997)

See related letter from Councilmember Schwartz

See related testimony (February 1997)

See related testimony (April 1996)

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