AUGUSTA — A Brunswick-based nonprofit sued Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday over his administration’s refusal to release federal funds for programs that provide workforce training to unemployed and underemployed Mainers.

In its lawsuit, Coastal Counties Workforce Inc. claims that LePage and Maine Labor Commissioner John Butera are violating federal law by refusing to distribute federal funding through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act program. LePage informed the U.S. Department of Labor this fall that Maine would no longer participate in the program, which the Republican governor contends wastes money by funding three workforce development boards rather than the single, Augusta-based oversight he has been pursuing for years.

But Coastal Counties Workforce said LePage’s decision to turn away more than $8 million in federal funding this year will only harm those in need. The nonprofit administers the programs in York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties on behalf of the workforce development board in southern and Midcoast Maine.

Staff members at some workforce development CareerCenters already have received conditional layoff notices connected to the LePage administration’s disagreement over the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act program. Coastal Counties Workforce’s deputy director, Antoinette Mancusi, said her program has scaled back some services and turned to the court after filing unsuccessful appeals with the state and federal governments.

“Given the severity of what we are looking at, which is the prospect of closing our doors, we felt we had absolutely no choice but to pursue this course,” Mancusi said.

According to the lawsuit, nearly $8.4 million in federal funds were “made available” to the LePage administration in July or August to cover the program year that extends from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018. Yet the LePage administration only offered to provide less than one-quarter of that share for the year, forcing Coastal Counties to rely on unexpended funds from the last program year in the interim. Then the LePage administration sent a letter this week notifying the nonprofit of plans to stop reimbursing expenditures after Nov. 30.

“These funds are used to provide job-training services for laid-off workers, low-income adults, struggling young people, as well as other deserving unemployed and underemployed Mainers seeking to enhance their skills and employment opportunities,” the organization said in a statement. “Without these funds, CCWI and Maine’s other Workforce Groups will be forced to cease operations by November 30th, leaving thousands of Maine’s citizens without the training and workforce development services to which they are entitled.”

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, is asking the court to compel LePage and Butera to make all of last year’s funds, as well as money for the current program year, available to the organization.

LePage spokesman Peter Steele said the administration does not comment on pending lawsuits. But addressing the general issue of LePage’s concerns about the federal program, Maine Department of Labor spokeswoman Laura Hudson said the administration continues “to try to find a solution with the USDOL and Maine’s local workforce boards so that we can get to an efficient and effective delivery system.”

Letters have been sent to the workforce development boards instructing them “to begin winding down the program, in the unfortunate, but likely event that agreement cannot be reached.”

“The 400 or so Mainers currently enrolled in occupational training across the state will be transitioned into other state and/or federal funding sources,” Hudson wrote in an email. “Those in intensive services or in search mode will be offered traditional CareerCenter counseling. And, we are doing everything possible to make sure that, as able, staff impacted here at MDOL are being placed elsewhere within the Department. The CareerCenters that house MDOL staff will not be closing. However, this potential change in funding allows us to explore ways to gain efficiencies in our current service delivery model.”

However, Coastal Counties Workforce said 908 adults, youth and dislocated workers are enrolled in workforce training or services. The lawsuit contends that “a majority of these visits and services will be adversely affected or completely eliminated” as a result of LePage and Butera’s actions. Federal funds account for approximately 75 percent of the nonprofit’s budget for the current program year, with the remaining 25 percent coming from grants.

“If the (program year 2017 funds) are not made available, CCWI will be forced to stop operating, shut down its programs and terminate all employees,” the lawsuit states.

LePage has been trying for at least four years to change what he contends is wasteful spending on administration in the federally funded workforce development program. However, the Obama administration and now the Trump administration both have rejected his requests to consolidate Maine’s three workforce development boards into one statewide agency based in Augusta.

After Labor Department officials in the Trump administration said they could not legally accommodate his request, LePage wrote in a letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta that “Maine is no longer participating in the WIOA Title 1B program” and asked the department not to send any more money to the state.

“The current system is fraught with redundancies and waste, and I have tried for nearly seven years to reduce overhead and administrative costs so that more funds can go directly to the constituents we are trying to put back to work,” LePage wrote in the letter, first obtained by the Bangor Daily News. “I will not continue to participate in a system that wastes money.”

But Mancusi said Maine has three workforce development boards because the economic and workforce needs vary substantially in such a large state. Additionally, Mancusi pointed out that the locally controlled workforce development boards are required by federal law.

“To turn away federal funding is a travesty, and for (Governor LePage) to think that the state of Maine can run this program … effectively in Augusta is absurd,” Mancusi said.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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