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A few years ago, the city’s welfare agency got special permission from the federal government to take control of roughly $120 million worth of welfare-to-work funds. The welfare agency hasn’t managed to spend the money on time, and it won’t even tell the federal Department of Labor what it’s done with the cash.

Now, to add insult to injury, the Human Resources Agency is now making a power grab for another $615 million worth of federal job training money–a move that anti-poverty advocates charge is illegal.

When HRA took charge of welfare-to-work programs in 1997, it promised to enroll 20,000 people in job placement and training programs within two years. According to the federal Department of Labor, which distributes the cash, the agency dawdled for more than a year with the first installment of money.

The second installment was supposed to be spent by last July, but federal labor officials report that this cash is AWOL as well. Apparently, it hasn’t yet even been allocated or sub-granted, said Marilyn Shea, regional administrator for the federal DOL’s Employment and Training Administration.

“We’re not sure what they’ve done with these [20,000] people,” she continued. “The information system in the city isn’t set up to provide this information…and [can’t] demonstrate that they have enrolled people or extended these funds.”

That raises major questions about the city welfare agency’s ability to implement the Workforce Investment Act, the new federal job training reform law, said Maurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project. Officials were supposed to appoint a local Workforce Investment Board, composed of labor, business, educational and community groups, to draft a five-year plan that will enact the new law and map out how the city plans to spend some $615 million worth of federal money. Instead, most important decisions–including the new plan–have apparently been made independently by the city’s welfare and employment departments.

According to the plan submitted to the state earlier this spring, the city’s welfare and employment agencies will control all job training programs and be directly responsible for their oversight and evaluation–all responsibilities that the WIB is supposed to control. “There’s still so little we know about what the city’s doing with this law,” said Emsellem. “The program is supposed to be implemented July 1, and they don’t have anything in place. It’s a big problem.”

A group of local anti-poverty and workforce advocates is now pressing the City Council to hold oversight hearings on the city’s lapses.

Shea was also concerned that the city’s WIA efforts are lagging: “They’re way behind, and they have a lot of work to do.” But so far, the federal Department of Labor isn’t yet particularly alarmed by the city’s methods. “We won’t take issue with the fact that the board didn’t develop the plan,” Shea said. “Implementing WIA is a tremendously complex and difficult endeavor. This whole thing will be evolutionary, and we’ll have to work with that.”

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