What are the state's plans for redrawing workforce investment area boundaries

Counties, state battle over workforce boundaries

Regional group says it shares costs, benefits in helping workers.

Area leaders are fighting a state plan to redraw the boundaries used to distribute federal workforce training money to Ohio’s communities.

The Area 7 Workforce Investment Board represents 43 counties — including Champaign, Clark, Greene, Miami, and Montgomery — far and away the largest designated service area in the state. The second largest area has five counties.

The boundaries need to be better aligned with regional economies, labor market characteristics and commuting trends, and the emphasis will be on smaller service areas, said Benjamin Johnson, a spokesman with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

“An area that stretches from the Ohio River to Lake Erie and includes portions of the state that are not contiguous is not reflective of the state’s regional economies,” Johnson said, referring to Area 7.

But members of Area 7 say it meets federal requirements for automatic designation and the state must approve this action.

They said the area’s current configuration reduces administrative costs and allows unused workforce dollars from member counties to be shifted to its other counties that can benefit from them.

“It’s cost-sharing and it’s also benefit-sharing, ” said Montgomery County Commissioner Debbie Lieberman, who last month was elected to be the Area 7 Workforce Investment Board’s chief elected official.

The state has 20 designated workforce investment areas, which were created under the Workforce Investment Act, first passed in the 1990s. These areas share about $72 million annually in federal workforce investment funds.

Most areas in the state consist of one to four counties. Area 7 covers nearly half of the state’s 88 counties and spans from the southwest part of the state to the northwestern corner and includes most of mid-central Ohio.

The Area 7 workforce investment board last year received about $18 million in federal funds to distribute.

The state plans to redraw the workforce areas to meet the goals of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, a federal law passed year that supersedes the Workforce Investment Act, said Johnson, with the state.

The state says redrawing the workforce investment map should improve the delivery of workforce services, including job training, career counseling and other activities to assist workers and businesses.

However, the federal law allows current workforce investment areas to be grandfathered in for designation if they meet certain criteria, including strong performance, sustained fiscal integrity and if their county membership does not change.

Local officials said Area 7 qualified for automatic designation, but the state denied the designation.

Area 7 does not have similar labor markets and consists of 43 non-contiguous counties that have vastly different in-demand occupations, according to a June 19 denial letter from Cynthia Dungey, director of the Department of Job and Family Services.

Dungey wrote that most of Area 7’s counties serve few adults, dislocated workers and youth, and the counties had numerous compliance findings during monitoring of its program.

“Low participation rates across an area the size of Area 7 could be symptomatic of a variety of problems, including ineffective outreach and marketing, which might be addressed through better configuration, alignment and partnership …” Dungey said.

But Area 7 has appealed the state’s denial to the U.S. Department of Labor, arguing it meets all of the criteria for automatic designation.

The state’s denial is indefensible and Area 7’s automatic designation must be approved under federal law, according to an appeal notice submitted by Steven Arndt, the former chief elected official for Area 7.

Area 7 has good performance, strong fiscal integrity and its membership remains the same, said John Trott, the Area 7 Workforce Investment Board’s executive director.

The county commissions of all 43 member counties have approved resolutions requesting automatic designation.

Trott said Area 7 functions efficiently and saves counties money, and local elected officials are supposed to have the greatest input in the designation process.

Up to 10 percent of federal funds can be used on administrative costs, but Area 7 keeps its overhead to about 3 percent, which is much lower than most areas, Trott said.

He said that 7 percent annual savings equates to about $1.2 million in additional funding to help businesses get workers and assist workers in becoming employed.

So far this year, Area 7 has helped nearly 95,000 people and provided 592,117 recorded services.

Trott said it would burden smaller areas to establish a workforce investment board and employ a fiscal agent and staff to monitor and implement the program.

Also, Commissioner Lieberman said, Area 7’s current configuration allows workforce dollars unneeded or unused by member counties to be transferred to other area counties in need of additional resources.

“It’s important to us because it works,”she said. “We met all of the criteria the feds requested, and there was no reason to turn down our request.”

The state has pushed for shared services between local governments, and Area 7 is a model of counties partnering together to eliminate duplication and reduce costs, said Michael Colbert, assistant Montgomery County administrator for development services.

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