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Ag secretary says USDA/DOL partnership won’t alleviate nixed Iowa jobs

While a cooperative agreement between the U.S. departments of agriculture and labor will provide some opportunities for rural workers, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said by phone Thursday that the effort won’t necessarily be a replacement for Iowa Workforce Development offices scheduled for closure.

Shortly after the elongated 2011 General Assembly came to a close, Gov. Terry Branstad used his line-item veto authority to nix a bipartisan legislative plan that would have saved 36 IWD field offices, predominantly in rural areas, from closure for at least one year while other options were studied. Although Democratic lawmakers and several grassroots and labor organizations pushed for a special session to over-ride the veto, Republicans, despite voicing their own concerns, did not join the effort.

Branstad’s vision is to replace the offices with “virtual points of access,” or computer terminals, in public locations. Opponents of the plan have argued that computer terminals, no matter how up-to-date, cannot replace the personalized services, such as resume development, that staff at the field offices provided to job seekers.

Some in Iowa have speculated that the newly announced joint effort between the USDA and DOL might fill the void of the Iowa office closures, but Vilsack didn’t provide an optimistic viewpoint to such speculation.

“What we are going to be able to do — and it is not specifically designated to the counties in which the workforce development offices have been closed — most of our Farm Services Agency offices will have information — it’s not so much an office — but they will have information and access to Labor Department information both in terms of paper resources as well as technology available to folks so that they can log onto the DOL site and find out information,” Vilsack said, describing a similar computer terminal-based information point as what Branstad has slated.

“When folks log on to the Department of Labor site, they can find out where they can pick up information in terms of training programs and employment opportunities. So it is more of a technology-type arrangement where we are expanding the DOL’s reach by making sure that information is available in these rural offices so that people don’t have to travel to a large city to get the information. It isn’t so much having a physical location as it is having information in a location that already exists.”

On Tuesday, during a White House Rural Economic Forum in Peosta, President Barack Obama announced four new economic initiatives that the administration believes will spur growth and help create jobs. In addition to the DOL/USDA agreement that will place job search tools at 2,800 FSA field offices throughout the nation, the U.S. Small Business Administration will double the amount of investment capital funneled to rural businesses through its Small Business Investment Company program — $350 million total over the next five years.

The Obama administration will sponsor and host “conferences” to help connect private equity and venture capital investors with rural start-ups, and have pledged “marketing teams” to go out and pitch federal grant money to private investors.

Finally, U.S. Health and Human Services will modify its National Health Service Corps loan repayment program to allow more than 1,300 small, rural hospitals to recruit new physicians. As The Iowa Independent’s previous series on rural health care has shown, and as White House officials echoed Tuesday, the addition of a single primary care physician into a rural community can generate significantly increased annual revenues — federal officials said $1.5 million annually — and can create additional local jobs.

Thursday, as part of the Obama administration’s week-long focus on the rural economy, Vilsack announced support for projects to create jobs and improve life quality in rural communities in 31 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

“The funding we are announcing today will help rural communities remain attractive to places for job creation and business expansion,” Vilsack said. “The Obama administration and USDA are committed to ensuring that rural communities remain economically competitive by offering residents access to quality health care services, modern library facilities and school buildings, and reliable emergency equipment and services.”

Financing totaling nearly $55 million in loans and grants will support 107 projects through USDA Rural Development’s Community Facilities program. Vilsack highlighted a Rotan, Texas project to renovate patient rooms and offices within the Fischer County Hospital District, which serves more than 4,300 people. The $42,000 loan and $35,000 grant will also be used to install a new electronic medical records system.

In Shepherd, Mich., Greendale Township was selected to receive $438,000 in loans to purchase a school building and convert it into a town hall and public safety building.

Although not specifically mentioned by Vilsack, several grants and one loan will be coming into Iowa:

  • Appanoose County Daycare, Inc. – To purchase a van and related equipment; $17,600 grant
  • East Union Community School District – To purchase childcare equipment; $10,365 grant
  • Bancroft Cay Care – To purchase childcare equipment and furnishings; $8,544 grant
  • Corning Community School District – To purchase playground and equipment; $10,500 grant
  • Ringgold County Hospital – To purchase information technology equipment; $50,000 grant
  • The Presbyterian Village – To renovate a care center and nine units of an assisted living facility; $3,000,000 loan

Funding for each project is contingent upon the recipient meeting the terms of the loan, grant or loan/grant combination agreement.

The video embedded below provides an overview of the forum held Tuesday in Peosta:

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