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The clock on federal dollars isn’t just running out on welfare. It’s now the eleventh hour for job training programs, too.

According to testimony at a City Council General Welfare Committee hearing last Thursday, New York City has just four months to spend $67 million in federal job training money. Those Workforce Investment Act dollars sat untouched over the last couple of years, because the extreme work-first philosophy of the Giuliani administration had little room for job training. Most of the hundreds of millions of dollars New York City has received under the Workforce Investment Act, or WIA, have gone to the oversight of the Human Resources Administration (HRA), the city’s welfare agency.

New HRA commissioner Verna Eggleston announced at the hearing that her agency will spend the next six months planning a shift of all of its Workforce Investment Act business to the Department of Employment (DOE), where new commissioner Betty Wu has pledged that every dollar invested in workforce “yields a significant return in human and economic capital for New York City.”

But spending that money in time won’t be easy. New York is unique in its decision to split WIA dollars between different agencies, and the dual challenge will now be to get the funds out the door even as HRA’s workforce development staff prepares to close up shop. Eggleston’s spending plan: boosting programs that are already in place, like job search assistance, help with resume prep and career counseling. Eggleston announced her intention to boost the number of training vouchers issued per month from 600 to 800.

The move to give DOE full control marks an abrupt turnabout from earlier this year, when rumors spread that the city planned to finally eliminate the agency. Under Giuliani, DOE saw its responsibilities whittled down to overseeing job services for youth and dislocated workers, and its budget shrank accordingly.

But whether HRA can spend such a large sum of money by June 30 while following city spending laws remains to be seen. Both federal Labor Department administrator Marilyn Shea and Workforce Investment Board chair Stuart Saft bemoaned the city’s “Byzantine” contracting systems, which they remarked would make it difficult to secure private training agencies quickly enough. Said Shea, “The only way this can be spent is if the city finds ways to streamline its procurement process.” It is now up to the Mayor’s Office of Contracts to find a way.

The consequences for failing to spend the workforce money go beyond missing an opportunity to help New Yorkers in need of jobs. If funds are “recaptured” by the state on July 1, the city probably can forget about seeing comparable levels of federal support for job training for years to come. As Marilyn Shea said when asked why New York had not gotten more federal assistance for training after September 11, “It’s difficult to make the case for more when there’s so much unspent money.”

But everyone is trying to be optimistic about the new administration. As council General Welfare Committee chair Bill de Blasio said: “After our conversations with the current administration, we believe there’s a lot of common ground on this. They’ve inherited a tough situation.”

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