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A 'sad day' for Community Action

"Once we've finally closed, around 70 employees will then be dismissed." - Davis Leino-Mills, OTWCAC executive director

After more than 40 years in the community, Otter Tail-Wadena Community Action Council (OTWCAC) is shutting down and laying off dozens of employees prior to being taken over by Detroit Lakes-based Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership.

"Our agency will be closing," OTWCAC Executive Director Davis Leino-Mills said. "Once we've finally closed, around 70 employees will then be dismissed."

Programs are being terminated in stages, and the 24 employees being laid off now will have the chance to apply for about 18 current job openings with Mahube-Otwa.

Dr. Leah Pigatti, executive director of Mahube-Otwa, said Mahube-Otwa will need to add to its staff because of the transition.

The original Mahube Community Action staff members are safe from the layoffs, and their organization has adequate funding, Pigatti added.

The name change from Mahube to Mahube-Otwa became effective April 1.

OTWCAC's state-funded programs will end June 30, but the "Family Planning Program" will continue through Mahube-Otwa Partnership.

Other programs ending June 30 include "Child Care Resource and Referral" and "Weatherization".

Additionally, two federally funded programs, "Energy Assistance" and the "Fathers' Resource Program", will end Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.

The "Early Head Start" and regular "Head Start" programs will continue through the upcoming school year and end in June 2013.

"Davis negotiated with (proper authorities) so the transition for children and their families will be minimal," Pigatti said.

Between fall 2012 and June 2013, the New York Mills OTWCAC office will be only for "Head Start", with other programs being offered through Mahube-Otwa.

Starting July 1, most programs will be referred to Mahube-Otwa.

By early July, Pigatti said, they hope to have their new Wadena satellite office at 311 S. Jefferson St. open to the public.

Also, Mahube-Otwa will bring its senior program, which was not available to Otter Tail and Wadena counties before.

OTWCAC's "Fathers' Resource Program" will continue into Mahube-Otwa.

"Both agencies gain something through that process," Leino-Mills said. "Our clients shouldn't see a big change in service availability."

Leino-Mills said the remaining office staff members will probably have reduced hours due to the cut in programs.

John Titcomb, an OTWCAC employee with "Head Start" and "Early Head Start", is one of the staff members whose job will not be affected immediately.

"A year is a long time down the road," he said.

After next year's "Head Start" program ends, OTWCAC will complete the process of shutting down.

Pigatti said Mahube-Otwa hopes to get funding that will allow it to continue programs in Otter Tail and Wadena Counties.

"Early Head Start" and regular "Head Start" continue to be funded in Mahube's original three counties, Mahnomen, Hubbard and Becker.

Leino-Mills said he is probably not one of the people whose current position is needed in Mahube-Otwa's expansion.

"My sense, when we close the agency down, I'll be unemployed," he said.

Pigatti said budget issues led to the changes.

"Davis and his board took a very courageous and bold step in initiating this process because they could see the handwriting on the wall, they could see funding is never going to come back the way it used to be," Pigatti said, adding that while the change is painful for communities and staff members, it will benefit the clients and is good in terms of funding.

Leino-Mills agrees funding was the root of the problem. He and Pigatti said most of the budget cuts were from the federal level, adding that local grants would not be able to keep business running as usual.

He also said, grants like what OTWCAC runs on are considered discretionary spending.

"Weatherization", for example, went from a $5 million program to an up to $300,000 program.

"We just got the notification a few months ago, and it was pretty much a surprise," OTWCAC Weatherization Auditor Stephen Bjorklund said.

For his job, Bjorklund would go to people's homes and do energy audits, determining ways to improve the operations.

"We were saving people up to $400 per household on their energy bill," he said. "It created a lot of work for contractors and manufacturers and local lumberyards."

Bjorklund, whose department was boxing up files this week, said he will not be able to work for Mahube-Otwa when his program is shut down.

"They already have three auditors. My job is basically done," Bjorklund said.

Bjorklund, who was a homebuilder throughout his working life, said he would not have much opportunity in Minnesota, but he and his cousin might leave for western North Dakota, where the oil boom is creating demand for housing.

Outside his job at OTWCAC, Bjorklund helped with June 17, 2010 tornado cleanup and other natural disasters. He is also active in prison ministry, something he hopes to continue wherever he moves next.

Bjorklund also said there are many good-hearted people working at Community Action, and those who do not take jobs at Mahube-Otwa will find ways to contribute to their communities.

But there are more parts of the change Bjorklund sees as unfortunate.

"What's sad is that the Community Action in New York Mills has been really active with food shelves and everything else," he said. "I feel sad that the 40-year institution is just no more. It's a sad day, it really is."

Community Action agencies elsewhere in the state are also wondering what to do about dwindling funds, Leino-Mills and Pigatti said.

Bjorklund said since Community Action had transparent funding, it was an easy target for budget cuts.

"Weatherization" was aided by recession stimulus funds, and that funding was cut, Bjorklund said.

Bjorklund also said the change hurts because Community Action has often been the first responder to low-income community members.

"I'm not sure what's going to happen with all those families now," he said. "It's going to come back to haunt all the communities in the next year or two."

Complicating the situation, Leino-Mills said, was the need for IT staff. He added that Mahube-Otwa has strong IT resources.

OTWCAC has had a presence in New York Mills since 1965. Mahube-Otwa will continue the satellite office in Fergus Falls and open a new satellite office in Wadena, but it is uncertain whether Mahube-Otwa will have a New York Mills office, Pigatti said.

An open house for the Wadena office will be held later in the summer.

As OTWCAC's New York Mills office reduces programs, its roughly 4,100 square-foot office building will have space available to rent for now, Leino-Mills said. The fate of the current office building will not be known until around the summer of 2013, he added.