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State Moves to Close 37 Workforce-Development Offices as Legislators Object PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Lynn Campbell   
Wednesday, 15 June 2011 19:23

Iowa Workforce Development is shutting down 37 field offices statewide, despite top legislators from both political parties saying they oppose the plan.

The plan is expected to most affect rural parts of the state. Lawmakers say it would force some unemployed Iowans to drive 80 miles to one of 16 regional workforce-development offices, rather than having a satellite office that’s closer to home.

It also would spur the layoff of 85 state employees and the elimination of another 40 vacant positions, according to the department. However, most of those who would be laid off are union members, and collective-bargaining agreements would allow them to use their seniority to bump workers with less experience.

“Maybe they should change their name to Workforce Un-Development,” said state Senator Bill Dotzler (D-Waterloo), co-chair of the legislature’s Economic Development Appropriations subcommittee. “Everything they’ve been doing has reduced services to dislocated workers. I’m very disappointed.”

Iowa Workforce Development Communications Coordinator Katie Hommer earlier this month told IowaPolitics.com that the budget plan calls for shutting 37 offices statewide, or two fewer than the original plan of closing 39 offices. A February news release from the department described it as a “reformed and enhanced delivery system” that would turn 55 field offices into “16 regional integrated one-stop offices and over 500 locally enhanced access points.”

But state Representative Jason Schultz (R-Schleswig), the other co-chair of the Economic Development Appropriations subcommittee, on Monday called the department’s assertion “wildly inaccurate.” He said the 600-page omnibus budget bill approved this past week by the Iowa House would require the state agency to maintain the same number of offices as it had two years ago.

“We think we’ve put together the funding for one more year,” said Schultz said, who acknowledged a disagreement between lawmakers and the state agency on this issue. “Is the money there? They say ‘no,’ and we say ‘yes,’ for one year.”

Iowa Workforce Development spokesperson Kerry Koonce confirmed Monday that the agency’s plan is to shut the 37 field offices.

“There’s nowhere near enough money,” Koonce said. “We’re $15 million short to fund all 55 offices at full staff.”

Koonce said negotiations over the budget are ongoing, but the agency is moving forward with the plan the governor supports. She said funding for the field offices is complicated, because they are not funded entirely with state money.

“It’s the governor’s way of downsizing and limiting services to Iowans,” Dotzler said. “It’s not right. At a period of high unemployment with 100,000 people out of work and gas at $3.50 to $4 a gallon, you can’t expect people to drive 80 miles one way to get services.”

Dotzler said the spending plan by Senate Democrats calls to fund workforce development field offices at $17.3 million, or about $120,000 less than this past year. He said the House Republicans’ budget calls for spending $2 million less than Senate Democrats. He called the agency’s assertion that it’s $15 million short “fuzzy math,” although he said the department will see a reduction in federal money and would have to close some offices eventually.

“This is one of the few things that Democrats and Republicans completely agree on in the legislature,” Dotzler said. “Here’s a director who doesn’t care what the legislature thinks. I’m just dumbfounded that that’s coming out of their mouth.”

Dotzler and Schultz both said Monday that the closure of field offices can be delayed, at least for another year. State lawmakers say closing the workforce-development field offices would go against legislative intent. But Koonce said the agency’s attorneys say there’s no such thing as legislative intent in Iowa.

Iowa Workforce Development is led by Theresa Wahlert, a former president and COO of the Mid-America Group – a regional real-estate, investment, and development firm in West Des Moines. She also served as CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership – the metro area’s economic-development group – and co-chair of the governor’s inaugural committee.

Senate Democrats expressed concerns about Wahlert following her nomination, but she was confirmed April 12 on a 36-14 vote.

“Unless the new director doesn’t care what the legislature dictates, they can’t arbitrarily make those decisions,” Dotzler said. “We’re the ones who are determining it. I know the director came from the world of business, but this is a legislative government, and we are elected by the people. I’m pretty frustrated.”

This article was produced by IowaPolitics.com. For more stories on Iowa politics, visit RCReader.com/y/iapolitics.

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