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State plans takeover of troubled Cook County jobs program

Friday, July 30, 2010
Daily Herald
by Robert McCoppin

State regulators are moving to take over a Cook County jobs program for what they say has been years of waste and mismanagement.

Officials are also looking anew into accounting and spending practices at the agency.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity plans to hire a new executor to oversee the Cook County President's Office of Employment Training, or POET, which runs job training in economically struggling suburbs. The new leader will remain in place until a new county president takes office in December to replace lame-duck President Todd Stroger, Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Marcelyn Love said.

The state will also require a shake-up in the local board that oversees POET.

The latest action came after the state determined POET had lost out on $2.7 million in federal funds in the latest annual reporting period. That comes after the program failed to take advantage of $8.3 million in federal funds from 2003 through 2008.

The funds, some of which are from the U.S. economic stimulus program, go unused if the county does not spend them in time or does not document them going to eligible workers.

In addition, the state asked for additional documentation last week to verify recent spending reports at the agency, which were much higher than previously reported. The county provided additional records and regulators are going over them.

The action comes just a month after Stroger appointed State Rep. Art Turner to take over and reform the agency. Turner finished second in voting for lieutenant governor in the Democratic primary this spring, but was passed over by party officials after the unexpected winner, Scott Cohen, dropped out of the race.

Turner has put together a team to "thoroughly fact find through scores of fiscal files" to address state concerns, according to POET spokesman Sean Howard.

He said POET has been working with the state and that Turner hopes not only to improve POET's fiscal practices, but to expand its mission to more businesses and high-growth job areas. POET has until Aug. 23 to respond to the state.

Previously, county officials have complained that POET had problems promising new money because the state was so slow in reimbursing POET.

POET has been on high-risk status with the state since 2005. The state has twice tried to negotiate a voluntary reorganization plan with Stroger, Love said, "But the situation has only deteriorated further."

"Thousands of Cook County residents are going without the work force services they are entitled to," she said, "and the state is losing out on valuable federal funds that are available to get people working."

POET dispenses money to contractors to train 16-to-24-year-olds in the West and South suburbs and place them in jobs. A different agency, the Northwest Suburban Employment and Training Center in Arlington Heights, handles similar job training in Northwest Cook County.

So far in 2010, POET has registered 3,036 people and placed 529 in jobs.

Some suburban commissioners, like Cook County Commissioner Tim Schneider, a Bartlett Republican, welcomed state oversight.

"I'm encouraged that we're finally taking the steps necessary to get this program running correctly," he said. "To take money away from people who need job training, at a time when it's critical to get people into the work force, is criminal."

Stroger spokeswoman Chris Geovanis remained optimistic the problems could be resolved.

"We continue to work hard to address any issues" the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity has, she said. "We think we've been able to move forward productively with them, and we look forward to continuing that dialogue."

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