After spat with Macon, local Workforce office may merge with Middle Georgia Consortium

Macon City Hall can only bill the Macon-Bibb County Workforce Investment Board for the administrative services the city actually provides to the agency, not a flat 10 percent of the local Workforce budget, Tricia Pridemore told a few members of Macon City Council on Tuesday afternoon.

Pridemore, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Workforce Development, was on hand to answer questions about a long-standing dispute between the City Council and the local Workforce office. But at the meeting’s end, it emerged that the responsibility for Workforce finances may soon not be Macon’s any longer.

As fiscal agent for the roughly $1.3 million in federal funding that Workforce receives annually, Macon is liable for repaying any money the federal government might decide wasn’t spent properly.

That’s been the cause of frequent tension with council members, often expressed in the recent debate over how much to charge Workforce for the administrative services the city has provided the agency.

At Tuesday’s meeting, several employees and board members of the Workforce office, as well as numerous city staff members, occupied most of the chairs in Mayor Robert Reichert’s conference room. But none of the agency’s harshest critics on the council -- President James Timley, Councilman Rick Hutto or Councilwoman Elaine Lucas -- attended.

Reichert started the meeting just after 5 p.m., saying he hoped more council members would arrive, and that those who missed might wish they had attended.

Only four of the 15 council members showed up: Lauren Benedict, Tom Ellington, Larry Schlesinger and Virgil Watkins.

Reichert said the Macon-Bibb Workforce office was once part of the 11-county Middle Georgia Consortium, but dropped out in 2000 because of the urban area’s more specialized needs. That left “kind of a hole in the doughnut” for the remaining 10 counties, and “some tension” developed with Macon City Council when the city became the fiscal agent for the local Workforce office, he said. That means the city is the local pass-through for the office’s federal grants and is ultimately liable if the federal government decides that Workforce money has been spent improperly.

In August 2011, the City Council passed an ordinance to charge Workforce 5 percent of its budget as a fee for city management of the agency’s payroll and several other administrative functions. The council upped the fee to 10 percent, effective July 1, 2012.

Kathy Thompson, local Workforce executive director, said she can only pay for administrative costs out of one of the four batches of grant money Workforce gets, and to pay 10 percent of the total budget to the city would mean the office couldn’t function.

“If we need to do a new resolution that allows Workforce to spread actual costs out, then I’m in favor of that as well,” Benedict said. But the basic question, she told Pridemore, was whether the city legally could charge a flat 10 percent at all, without itemizing its actual costs.

“That’s really the rub, and what a lot of council members are asking about,” Benedict said.

In a roundabout way, Pridemore said the city could only bill Workforce for its actual administrative costs, and had to justify all those charges to auditors and the state.

She was echoed by Assistant City Attorney Stuart Morelli.

“We can bill costs. It can’t be a flat rate,” he said.

Reichert said current actual costs, calculated by a third party, are now 7.6 percent of the Workforce budget, or about $7,800 per month.

“My problem is, I’ve got council saying ‘This is an ordinance, this is law, you’ve got to collect it,’” interim Chief Administrative Officer Dale Walker said.

That led to the question of whether the city’s current ordinance, calling for a flat 10 percent charge, was legal. Morelli said it’s pre-empted by federal law, so anything above justifiable cost essentially is being ignored.

Even if Workforce doesn’t rejoin the Middle Georgia Consortium, the liability question may change soon. A proposed new intergovernmental agreement would split liability 50-50 between the city and Bibb County, but Workforce would have to use all of its available funds for reimbursement before any city or county money is touched. The issue was tabled in the City Council’s Sept. 4 Community Resources & Development Committee meeting and is expected to come back up Sept. 18. Mayoral spokesman Chris Floore said the city is looking at getting further insurance to cover any city liability that might remain.

To contact writer Jim Gaines call 744-4489.