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Stimulus rules thwart city of Milwaukee training efforts

James Luna (left) and Marquel Hinkle of Northcott Neighborhood House’s Wisconsin Fresh Start program install window frames at a home in the 2600 block of West Cherry Street in Milwaukee on Thursday.  Photo by Corey Hengen

James Luna (left) and Marquel Hinkle of Northcott Neighborhood House’s Wisconsin Fresh Start program install window frames at a home in the 2600 block of West Cherry Street in Milwaukee on Thursday. Photo by Corey Hengen

Sean Ryan
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Federal rules governing Community Development Block Grant stimulus money are forcing Milwaukee to downsize its plans to hire and train workers.

The city will use most of the $4.5 million in CDBG money for street and building contracts and will rely on the private sector to train workers. Steven Mahan, director of Milwaukee’s CDBG administration, said the city originally planned to train workers but had to change that plan after the federal government this month said only 15 percent of the stimulus money can be spent on wages for workers hired by governments.

“That was grandiose,” Mahan said of the city’s original plan. “It had a lot of stuff in there to see if it was going to go.”

Milwaukee’s new plan, which the city’s Community and Economic Development Committee will consider Tuesday, would let the city’s Department of Public Works use $677,776 to hire and train 44 residents in landscaping. The plan dedicates $1.1 million to street projects and $980,000 to public work to improve street lighting, bus shelters or public signs.

Alderman Tony Zielinski, vice chairman of the Community and Economic Development Committee, said he is looking for ways to increase hiring and training of city workers for the contracts.

Federal limits on public use of CDBG money also are forcing the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee to rethink its plans. The authority originally wanted to use the money to teach workers to renovate authority buildings and, after training the workers, connect them to Milwaukee residential contractors, said Tony Perez, the authority’s executive director.

“We are the largest landlord in the state of Wisconsin,” Perez said. “You want to change windows? We have thousands of windows that can be changed.”

The federal rules forced the authority to develop a new plan to give $600,000 to the Northcott Neighborhood House’s Wisconsin Fresh Start project and the Milwaukee Christian Center’s Youthbuild program to train construction workers for housing rehabilitation projects.

Northcott project manager Tony Kearney said $300,000 of that money would pay for about 15 trainees and two supervisors who would oversee the projects. He said he expects many of the workers to move into weatherization jobs after completing the training.

Perez said it would be more effective to let the city hire the trainees. It would be easier, he said, to connect them to contractors because the city could pay a portion of the wages while the trainees worked with private builders on housing authority projects, he said. That system would have smoothed the transition into the private sector for the workers, he said.

A city program to hire and train workers in construction also could improve chances to compete for other American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants that give applicants higher scores when training is involved, Perez said.

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