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Service Programs' Future the Real Topic at Wofford Hearing

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Washington

A hearing last week on Harris Wofford's nomination to head the Corporation for National and Community Service focused more on its beleaguered programs than on his qualifications, which committee members praised.

The former Pennsylvania senator, who helped to create the Peace Corps in 1961 as an aide to President Kennedy, said he hoped that AmeriCorps and the agency's other programs would not become a "casualty of congressional partisanship."

Many Republican lawmakers are pushing to eliminate the service programs, a signature Clinton administration initiative enacted in 1993.

While the two Republicans and three Democrats who attended the hearing are not among the programs' harshest critics, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., who chairs the committee, asked Mr. Wofford how lawmakers can rationalize spending millions of dollars on national service when they are wrestling with a substantial federal deficit.

She cited a recent report by the General Accounting Office that set the cost of AmeriCorps at more than $26,000 per volunteer, a figure Mr. Wofford disputed.

The report is the latest volley in a battle that began when the first AmeriCorps volunteers reached the field last fall. And it only confirms that supporters and detractors are as unlikely to agree on how to estimate the service program's cost as they are on its desirability.

The 20,000 AmeriCorps members earn a minimum-wage stipend, health insurance, and $4,725 for college expenses in exchange for at least 1,700 hours of service in a variety of projects.

Dueling Estimates

AmeriCorps officials estimate that they spend $18,800 per volunteer. Other estimates of the average cost per participant have ranged from $20,000 to more than $30,000.

The GAO says that AmeriCorps spends only $17,629 per member. But the report also contends that cash and in-kind contributions from federal, state, and local agencies add up to an additional $7,205 per volunteer, while private contributions add another $1,819.

Factoring in those resources makes the cost figures explode. For example, the GAO estimates that the Navy's Seaborne Conservation Corps AmeriCorps project costs an average of $66,725 per member.

Mr. Wofford and officials at the Corporation for National Service say the GAO auditors unfairly counted the costs of such things as gymnasium time, supervisory salaries, and computer use. Some of those contributions, the officials say, really cost donors little or nothing.

"These are not costs," said Rick Allen, the director of external affairs for the corporation. "The GAO is addressing a far broader topic--all available resources."

Meeting Goal

Mr. Wofford and other supporters said the GAO data demonstrate that AmeriCorps is already meeting its goal of supplementing federal appropriations with support from state and local governments and private contributors.

Mr. Allen said AmeriCorps officials are preparing a response to a challenge--issued by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, in a letter to President Clinton--to devise a plan to cut the program's costs and increase private-sector contributions.

Mr. Grassley said the GAO report proves that AmeriCorps is "another Great Society-style boondoggle."

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