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Published: Monday, 6/9/2003

Labor panel seeks split from county

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Workforce investment is kind of like a dating service that links workers with employers.

But who runs the dating service and where the prospective suitors should meet have become the hottest political topics in Lucas County government.

The most immediate issue is whether the county commissioners will allow the Workforce Policy Board, a body made up mostly of local business leaders and union officials, to be more than just an advisory panel.

A preliminary consultant's report delivered to the commissioners last week recommends one option that would grant the policy board the power to hire its own executive director and have more financial authority.

The commissioners have to decide whether to cede power to the advisory board or keep control of a federal program set up to train workers.

Bill Brennan, chairman of the policy board, said the volunteer board members who are frustrated by the lack of progress think wresting the program from county government will make it more efficient.

“It will allow us to make decisions more quickly,” Mr. Brennan said. “Government does not make decisions quickly. It puts it more into the private sector. The whole purpose of [the Workforce Investment Act] is to have more business involvement.”

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 was designed to train workers to meet the labor needs of employers. Like a dating service, employers spell out what they're looking for, and workers are trained for those jobs. The county's workforce investment agency is supposed to bring them together, and everyone goes away happy.

But workforce investment hasn't had a happy history in Lucas County.

Tom Herman, a Workforce Policy Board member and former chairman, said enthusiasm for the board's mission has waned over the years because so little attention has been paid to the issue.

“I think [there's been frustration] for nothing more than a lack of progress and direction,” he said.

The issue may be getting attention now because of political trouble created last year when the state pulled back about $550,000 in unspent funds that were to be used to help dislocated workers.

It embarrassed the commissioners and became a campaign issue in the commissioners' race between Sandy Isenberg and Maggie Thurber, an election Ms. Thurber went on to win.

Interest in workforce investment changed with Ms. Thurber's election and Tina Skeldon Wozniak's appointment to replace Bill Copeland, who retired in December. Suddenly, Harry Barlos, president of the commissioners, was not the only commissioner pushing to make the issue a priority.

“I think we have the ears of all the commissioners now,” Mr. Brennan said. “We just want to get this thing moving. Volunteers can only take a project so far.”



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