[/media-credit] Maine Governor Paul LePage talks with reporters at a meeting of New England governors and Eastern Canadian premiers in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in September. (AP file photo)

After three decades of helping train tens of thousands of Mainers for jobs, administrators of the state’s three workforce development boards and the career coaches they help pay for may be looking for new positions themselves.

That’s because Gov. Paul LePage is refusing to take $8.4 million from the federal government to cover the cost of the program.

“It’s really a shame,” Augusta attorney Craig Nelson, chairman of the Central/Western Maine Workforce Development Board’s executive committee, said Wednesday. “He’s being extremely shortsighted.”

LePage told the workforce development panels, which are overseen by a mix of business and county government leaders, that he would pull the plug on their funding Nov. 30.

Though one of the regional boards, the Brunswick-based Coastal Counties Workforce Inc., is suing LePage to try to make him accept the federal funding provided through the Department of Labor, Nelson said his agency can’t join in.

“We just have the money to finish winding up,” he said, and don’t have any funds to tap to lend a hand to the federal lawsuit filed Tuesday to try to force LePage to make the job-training cash available.

Laura Hudson, the director of communications for Maine’s Department of Labor, said Wednesday that reducing the layer of administrative costs to just one entity would save hundreds of thousands of dollars that could be used for job training.

She called it “unfortunate” that letters had to be sent to local workforce boards “to begin winding down the program” in case it proves impossible to agree on a more effective system.

“We are at an important place in this process,” Hudson said, given that President Donald Trump is eyeing a 40 percent reduction in funding for the job-training program.

Nelson said his agency is working with the U.S. Labor Department’s Boston office to put procedures in place so “we can get started again” if the governor elected next year takes a different stance than LePage.

The governor told federal Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta in a Sept. 7 letter that he has been trying for almost seven years “to reduce overhead and administrative costs” among the boards that he believes “are fraught with redundancies and waste.”

Since Acosta’s department wouldn’t let him take the money into the state government instead – something the law doesn’t allow – LePage told the Labor secretary Maine “will not continue to participate in a system that wastes money.”

Federal law prohibits the workforce panels from spending more than 10 percent of their funding on administration, however there’s no evidence any of them have violated that standard.

An audit of the Central/Western Maine board last year found it spent $225,000 on administration and the rest of its $3.1 million budget on providing services.

In a Sept. 20 response to LePage, Acosta offered a couple of alternatives to overhaul the job-training program in Maine, including reducing the number of workforce boards to two, but LePage opted to follow through on his declaration that he simply wouldn’t take the money.

Julie Rabinowitz, LePage’s press secretary, said the administration can’t comment because of the litigation.

The chairman of the chief elected officials panel that oversees the regional board, Androscoggin County Commissioner Zakk Maher, said Wednesday that he supports LePage’s “desire to increase the efficiency with which we deliver our services, be it through consolidated administration or technical and operational improvements.”

But, he said, “the approach of a forced layoff of all existing service providers via an artificial stalemate between the counties and Augusta is not in the best interest of Maine job-seekers or the employers who count on these services.”

“If there was a plan on the table that made sense we would be elbows-deep trying to make it happen,” Maher said.

He said it’s unfortunate state labor officials have been told “we need to agree to the single-centralized workforce board before we can even talk about what the composition of that board would look like, and how it would impact our more rural communities.”

“Without being able to talk out the details, or weigh any potential negative effects on those we support, it is not in the best interest of the employers or job-seekers in Central and Western Maine to jump into this situation blind,” Maher said.

Nelson said the bottom line is that people who are served through the program are going to get hurt by the governor’s decision to walk away from the money.

The regional board’s long-term plan said the largely rural area of Maine it serves is seeing “many workers displaced from production, construction, office and administrative support” who lack the post-secondary education to find new jobs that offer the same levels of pay.

Their prospects “are likely to worsen in the years ahead without well-directed job-training resources.”

Nelson said the job-training board has sought with success to work with employers to assist unemployed and underemployed Mainers to get the skills needed to fill positions that require more technical and professional expertise.

He said, for example, that four years ago the board got a $5 million grant to help put Mainers in better jobs. It aimed to train 450 people.

Instead, Nelson said, the board worked closely with hospitals and other medical providers to focus on health care jobs that require specialized training – ones that are tough to fill – and wound up assisting 1,075 workers to get new or better positions.

The Central/Western Maine Workforce Development Board, which serves Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, Androscoggin and Kennebec counties, was created as a quasi-governmental agency under a 1998 federal law that sought to create similar agencies across the country.

The idea behind them was to bypass state bureaucracy and try to deliver funds to local and regional decision-makers in government and business.

Hudson said the 400 Mainers now enrolled in occupational training “will be transitioned” into other programs funded by the state or federal governments. Some will get traditional CareerCenter counseling, she said.

Because the state uses some of the federal cash to help cover the costs of the centers, officials are also exploring ways to make them more efficient. Hudson said they won’t close.

“We will continue to do what we have always done for workers and businesses, with or without” the federal funding, Hudson said.

She said the governor’s goal “remains putting resources into skill development, where they should be, leading Maine people to higher-paying careers and ensuring that employers have the skilled workers they need to survive and thrive.”

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