Taxpayers should be concerned if millions of their money spent for workforce development is being spent properly.
There is now a $350 million honeycomb of workforce development grants, with one of those being the state’s Workforce Enhancement Training program that are becoming attractive targets for fraud.
The WET program has community colleges work directly with employers to develop a customized training curriculum where classes are offered through the college. The fund covers the cost for the colleges, while employers pay their employees.
The Mississippi Development Authority requires these trainings to be industry-recognized and certificate-based. If there isn’t a community college in the area, employers can also receive WET funds to provide training themselves or with an outside contractor.
State Auditor Shad White’s office announced that two alleged conspirators, Washington and Joseph Lowder, were indicted after being accused of defrauding the WET program. The auditor also issued $2.3 million worth of demand letters to Itawamba Community College, where Lowder was the dean of economic and community services, Washington (who worked for a furniture company) and the owners of that furniture company, Jennifer and David Schock.
Washington was accused of submitting fraudulent documents for more than $680,000 in WET funds. White hit the college for $1.4 million in demands after he says it didn’t follow program guidelines and ensure the money was being spent properly.
This unfortunately isn’t likely an isolated case and more of this tomfoolery is likely to be discovered.
The reason is any time there are large pools of government money, there will always be people who want to steal those taxpayer funds.
Those funds are increasing because the state’s leaders have put a lot of emphasis on workforce development.
Workforce development and training have been big buzzwords with Gov. Tate Reeves and lawmakers for the past few years. The state has an alphabet soup of grant programs from such agencies as the Mississippi Department of Human Services, Mississippi Department of Employment Security and the MDA that are designed to boost job skills training in adults.
Millions in state and federal dollars present an attractive target for scofflaws who understand how to game the system to their advantage to line their wallets.
There’s nothing wrong with companies partnering with community colleges to train new employees, as in the case of Hinds Community College and Continental Tire.
But when there is a fat pool of grants that can be manipulated by those in the know, it can leave taxpayers all WET, pun intended.
Better accountability safeguards need to be part of any discussion of spending, be it on workforce development or luring a new company to the state. Taxpayers need to be able to trace every penny and find out if their money is being spent wisely.
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