Job center closure planned, then put on hold

Until Saturday afternoon, the Parnell administration was quietly preparing to close down a state-run job center in northeast Anchorage.

The last day of operation for the Muldoon Job Center was set for Nov. 25. The plan was to transfer the staff to the Midtown Job Center, 7 miles southwest. Including a job center in Eagle River, there are a total of three state-run centers in the Anchorage area, offering services like job search help, recruiting sessions, employment training, unemployment insurance information and special assistance for veterans and seniors.

But the administration has now put the brakes on the Muldoon plan, after drawing strong criticism from local and state legislators and inquiries from the Alaska Dispatch News.

"At the request of the Office of the Governor, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development will delay a final decision on the closure of the Muldoon Job Center pending further review of the impact of consolidating services," Beth Leschper, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, wrote in an email at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

The reversal came a day after Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, sent a strongly-worded letter to Gov. Sean Parnell, asking the decision be reconsidered. The letter proposes the state Legislature take up the question of the job center's future in January, when the new legislative session begins.

Wielechowski provided a copy of the letter to the Alaska Dispatch News. In an interview Saturday morning, the senator said he only learned of the plans in the middle of last week, through a voicemail to his office from a legislative liaison.

Wielechowski said his staff contacted the Department of Labor for data and found that as many as 800 people visit the Muldoon Job Center per week.

Many are on public assistance or receiving unemployment benefits. There are also a large number of veterans or younger members of the workforce without access to reliable transportation who would have to take two buses to commute to the center in Midtown, according to Wielechowski.

On Saturday, the job center, located in the Northeast Community Center, was dark and closed to customers. A People Mover bus system map hung on the wall outside; inside, there were kiosks and desks with computers.

Wielechowski said constituents have emailed him over the years, telling him how the job center helped them. Last week, he said, he contacted Commissioner Dianne Blumer of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and found out the decision to close the Muldoon center was made Nov. 10.

"I said 'Why?'" Wielechowski said. "It seems kind of a rash decision to make by a lame-duck governor," referring to Parnell's seemingly certain loss to Bill Walker in the gubernatorial race. Parnell conceded the race to Walker Saturday evening.

He said Blumer told him that the administration had been discussing closing the center "for some time." But Wielechowski said members of the Legislature had never been informed of the plans. He also forwarded an email that he sent to Walker Friday afternoon, explaining his concerns and those of other state legislators.

Sen. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, said in a phone call Saturday she had also drafted a letter in opposition but was waiting to see a fiscal analysis before sending it.

"We've got to find places to save money," Wielechowski said. "But I think it's something we should debate as a Legislature."

The letter Wielechowski wrote with LeDoux cites a high need for the center in Muldoon, which has "much higher rates of unemployment and lower income levels than other parts of Anchorage." The letter also states that the closure would lead to "paltry" savings of $165,000 annually, a figure Wielechowski said he got from Blumer.

Contacted Saturday for comment, Leschper sent an email at 12:10 p.m. outlining the plans to close the job center in Muldoon. She noted that the Midtown Job Center can be accessed by People Mover buses on routes 60, 2 and 36, and the Eagle River center can be accessed on route 10.

Her email cited an annual operating cost for the Muldoon center, including personnel, of about $1.1 million. All personnel were to be transferred to the Midtown center, where the annual operating budget is currently $3.3 million, according to Leschper. She did not address the expected savings as a result of the consolidation.

Leschper said the decision "was not made lightly," and that the closure "would affect the 230 Alaskans on average that have received one or more staff-assisted services at the Muldoon center each month." The source of the discrepancy between Leschper's estimate of monthly users and the estimate provided by Wielechowski was not made clear Saturday.

"However, the rationale for this decision is fiscal austerity as federal funds, which account for 96 percent of all job center funding, continue to decline," Leschper wrote.

She said that effective Dec. 1., the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and Alaska Youth Military Academy's ChalleNGe Program would be moving into the center's space. It was not immediately clear how the delay will affect that agreement.

After being pressed for more details on savings tied to the closure, Leschper called a reporter to say the state was considering delaying the closure. Her email confirming the delay came about an hour later.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.