The LePage administration and an organization that oversees job training in coastal and southern Maine have been unable to reach an agreement outside of court that would lead to the release of millions in federal funds meant to help laid-off workers, low-income adults and struggling young adults find work.
That’s because the administration requested in negotiations that Coastal Counties Workforce Inc., based in Brunswick, in addition to Maine’s two other regional workforce development organizations, spend 60 percent of their funding on tuition and direct services for job seekers, which would not have left the organizations with enough money to run their operations, said Michael Bourret, executive director of Coastal Counties.
“Ultimately that would lead to a slow decimation of the system,” Bourret said Thursday. “The governor and the Department of Labor are not willing to negotiate on the contract.”
Coastal Counties filed a lawsuit in federal court Oct. 24 to compel Gov. Paul LePage and Maine Department of Labor Commissioner John Butera to provide it with federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funding for the 2016 and 2017 program years.
LePage has withheld $8.4 million from the state’s available federal funding this year that would otherwise pay for training for thousands of unemployed workers, available through the state’s network of 12 career centers. He has not released the money because the U.S. Department of Labor did not let him replace three regional workforce development boards — which administer the federal funding and aim to tailor job training services to their local areas — with one statewide board, which he argued would be more cost-effective.
After Coastal Counties filed the lawsuit, the administration did allow funding left over from 2016 to flow to the organizations that oversee training services, Bourret said.
And it appeared the administration might be willing to resolve the rest of the lawsuit. “It appeared that there was room to have a conversation. Of course we took the opportunity,” Bourret said.
But the administration only offered to release this year’s federal funding if the boards put 60 percent of the money toward tuition and training, he said. It’s common for boards across the country, including in Maine, to spend between 30 and 35 percent on the direct services.
Laura Hudson, a spokeswoman with the Maine Department of Labor, did not reply to a question about why the department settled on 60 percent.
After taking a cut of almost 25 percent of the total federal funding, the Maine Department of Labor disburses the remaining money to three organizations, including Coastal Counties, that oversee training services on behalf of the regional workforce boards. Those entities are required to spend no more than 10 percent of their funds on administration.
Then, they contract with other community organizations — such as Eastern Maine Development Corporation in Bangor or Workforce Solutions in southern Maine — that provide the actual career counseling and case management at local career centers.
The organizations working with job seekers are required to evaluate clients before deciding what training they should receive, and to coordinate with employers who provide on-the-job training and work experience. In addition to salaries and benefits, the federal funding also pays for rent.
“Nobody around the country is anywhere close to that percentage [of 60],” said Kelly McDonald, the attorney for Coastal Counties. “It is really just not feasible to do that and still be in compliance with all of the other requirements that we have to follow under federal law and all the other services we have to provide.”
The lawsuit will proceed in federal court, McDonald said, with a hearing date set for Dec. 18.