With the local unemployment rate sitting at 9.2 percent, the Pikes Peak Workforce Center is trying to get thousands of people ready to hold a job.
Part of that effort includes handing out fuel cards so some residents can get to job interviews, or to classes in retraining programs. The idea is to increase an individual's future employability, which, in turn, boosts regional economic development.
But a routine agenda item Dec. 4 that asked El Paso County commissioners to approve $79,200 in federal spending next year on fuel cards provoked an ideological oration over redistribution of wealth and government accountability.
Commission Chair Amy Lathen, a conservative who has called President Obama a Marxist and a socialist, was the most vocally opposed to giving the unemployed among us a $20 fuel card.
"I have a fundamental issue of taking taxpayers' money and giving it to someone to go to school," she said.
The expenditure is part of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which allows the government to help pay for job training and education for people who are unemployed, as well as veterans, dislocated workers and military spouses. Gas cards also can be given to clients to assist in traveling to job interviews, based on financial need.
"With the price of gas nowadays, people just don't have the gas money," Workforce Center spokeswoman Jeanne Cotter says in an interview, adding that federal benefits beyond the standard 26 weeks of unemployment payments will end Dec. 29, unless Congress authorizes additional payments.
People who live in Colorado Springs can get three $20 cards per month, she says; if they live outside the Springs but in El Paso County, they can qualify for four. But the eligibility guidelines are strict: From Jan. 1 through Dec. 5, only 157 people were given fuel cards. (The Workforce Center served 55,476 people during the same time period.) They must be enrolled in a specific federal government program for retraining, or be able to document their job search. And they must have a current driver's license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance.
"I do know that our case managers are very cognizant of their fiduciary trust," Cotter says, noting that if there's any indication a recipient is misusing a fuel card, case managers "would take appropriate action," such as not issuing the client additional cards or seeking repayment.
The problem: There's no mechanism in place to assure the cards are used for fuel.
"What would stop someone from buying a Slurpee?" Cotter says, reciting commissioners' concerns. "We don't have an answer for that."
Commissioner Peggy Littleton said last week that recipients shouldn't get a second card until they prove they used the first one for fuel alone. But Cotter says handing out cards already is fairly labor-intensive for the Workforce Center, and additional paperwork would require even more staff time.
That's why she hopes the contract will be rebid, or renegotiated with the only vendor who bid on it, Loaf 'N Jug, to require it to impose controls.
However, county spokesman Dave Rose says Loaf 'N Jug doesn't have an enforcement mechanism in place to limit the cards to fuel purchases only.
"I suspect that the solution will be people have to bring back the receipt" for how the card was spent, the Workforce Center's Mike St. Clair told commissioners. "We can, no doubt, improve our process."
Commissioners voted 4-1 to reconsider the expenditure on Dec. 20 with an accountability provision. Lathen voted no, saying she opposes the spending under any circumstances.