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Local workforce agency fights changes

MANATEE -- The winds of change blowing through state government would rein in local control over the state’s 24 workforce boards after abuses by a few.

But Manatee and Sarasota officials are fighting that change, saying the measures are draconian, an overreaction and unnecessary.

“I can understand how this originated, but it’s overreacting by putting this in state control,” said Manatee County Commissioner Donna Hayes. “There is a better way to handle it than taking away local control.”

The changes approved last week by the Business and Consumer Affairs Subcommittee would give Gov. Rick Scott more control over the appointments of the workforce board chairs and executive directors, annual budgets would be reviewed by the state and the number of workforce board members would be reduced.

The proposed changes are designed to make workforce agencies more transparent, the governor’s office has said. They also include requiring directors on regional work force boards to submit financial disclosures, something already being done by the local Suncoast Workforce, officials said.

“We are approaching this cautiously because we don’t want to upset the governor,” said Suncoast Chief Executive Officer Mary Helen Kress. But she said most local officials connected to Suncoast, along with some legislators and other workforce agencies, don’t agree with the changes.

“We serve the public, everything has to be public,” she said. “We really regret that what happened in Orlando and Tampa has brought negative attention to us. This is not representative of the majority of workforce boards.”

Scott put the Orlando board, which oversees employment activities in five counties, on probation in September after allegations of misuse of funds like the purchase of 40 cars for the agency and thousands of dollars spent to buy capes for unemployed people as part of a marketing campaign. He replaced the leadership of Orlando-based Workforce Central Florida, which was ordered to repay $700,000 state regulators say the agency misspent.

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who is on the subcommittee looking at the legislative changes, has voted against them, saying it “expands state government into local issues.

“A good portion of the rules make sense. We need to demand fiscal responsibility and accountability, but some of the workforce boards have become unwieldy because of their size,” he said. “We need to make local county commissioners and other local officials more responsible.”

The abuses happened “probably because the local people closed their eyes to it,” Rouson said.

Edward Peachey, president/CEO of WorkNet Pinellas and Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance, took over the Tampa position after former leaders left following allegations of conflict of interest with contracts and improper use of funds for promotional events.

“Anything you can do now can be second-guessed,” he said. “For years we were told to partner with chambers and economic development entities and be part of their events and do as much as we could to integrate into their activities. Now we are too scared to get involved in outreach.”

Hayes and Dale Vollrath, chair of the Suncoast Workforce board, both defended the local agency, saying audits have been squeaky clean and things are operating smoothly.

“Ninety-three percent of funding goes directly toward programs with 7 percent toward administration,” said Hayes, the Manatee commission’s representative on the board. “That includes building expense and personnel. We are managing our workforce very well.”

“We have auditors who come in annually and hold us accountable,” Vollrath said. “We have virtually no blemishes in our audit.

“What (the Orlando and Tampa) boards did was horrible, maybe they should face jail time, they were really out of control,” he said. “But these changes are a little draconian. One or two people cross the line, and everybody suffers.”

Suncoast Workforce, which oversees job training and employment in Manatee and Sarasota counties, has already taken some steps like eliminating sponsorship of events that would be considered promotional.

Kress is meeting individually with legislators to present an alternative proposal for greater transparency and accountability -- one that keeps things at a local level.

The proposal calls for a delegation of local elected officials to be responsible for hiring and firing of the executive director, and approving the annual budget and operations plan; and have the ability to appoint and remove board members for cause.

Several county commissions are considering passing resolutions in support of the current status of workforce operations.

“We feel we are all being treated a little unfairly because of what several boards have done,” Kress said, pointing out that the state monitors workforce agencies three to four times a year.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said he is “concerned about the loss of local control” in the new legislation.

“Some agencies have done a wonderful job in watching their expenses, however, we have had some who have not been so diligent watching their costs,” he said.

“I’m looking at this hard to see if there is not a way we can correct single problems.”

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