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Legislators want review of Wheels-to-Work grants

A state senator is questioning why a nonprofit group with "spotty results statewide and terrible results for some families" has received a $1 million grant to run a donated-car program for welfare recipients.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources recently awarded the grant to Morgantown-based Human Resources Development Foundation, an offshoot of the state AFL-CIO.

Sen. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, asked for a hearing and a review of the bidding process in a letter to DHHR Secretary Paul Nusbaum on Monday. Rowe asked why the grant did not go to Charleston-based Good News Mountaineer Garage, "which has been very successful" and was the model for the donated-car program, he wrote.

Another state senator also said he would ask tough questions about the welfare-to-work car programs during legislative interim meetings next week.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said the program needs to track participants better, so it can determine if they keep jobs. He also wants more cooperation between DHHR and regional workforce investment boards, which fund employment programs.

"There's waste, there's potential for fraud or abuse in the system," said Unger, who co-chairs the Legislative Oversight Commission on Workforce Investment for Economic Development. "The goals the program is trying to accomplish aren't being measured. They don't know if they're accomplishing what they set out to do. That's bad public policy."

The legislators' questions follow news reports that revealed questionable spending in the state's $23.7 million Wheels-to-Work car lease program. Nonprofit groups sold clunkers to welfare recipients while used-car dealers reaped millions in sales and repairs over the past three years.

Since 2001, the Human Resources Development Foundation received more than $4 million to run a lease-to-own vehicle program in the central part of the state. The nonprofit group leased cars whose engines caught fire, mufflers fell off and seat belts didn't latch, according to program participants.

Some participants returned to welfare when their unreliable cars couldn't take them to work.

Sharon Paterno, a former DHHR official now working for the Human Resources Development Foundation, declined to comment on Rowe's letter Monday.

Last week, Human Resources Development Foundation officials vigorously defended the Wheels program. They said they sold quality vehicles that passed inspection.

The organization had the highest repossession rate in the Wheels program — about 40 percent. The agency "bundled" dozens of cars it wanted to get rid of and sold them at much-reduced prices. They were supposed to sell each car individually.

The agency sold 103 vehicles last year for about $450 each. Within the last two years, it had bought the same vehicles for five times as much, an average of $2,300.

State officials started an audit of the Human Resources Development Foundation in May, but they didn't release the results until last week, after the grant had been awarded.

Good News Mountaineer Garage officials do not run a West Virginia Wheels-to-Work leasing program. Instead, they take donated cars, fix them up and give them to current and former welfare recipients who need them to get to work.

The state quietly decided to scrap its car-leasing Wheels program in August, in favor of the a donated-car program. The Wheels program officially ends Dec. 31.

Good News Mountaineer Garage was the model for the statewide donated-car program, said Fred Boothe, commissioner of DHHR's Bureau of Children and Families. It has given cars to 320 families since 2001.

"We've worked with them for a year and a half," he said. "We've been able to see it's a very effective program."

But Boothe and other state officials denied Good News Mountaineer Garage's request for a hearing into the bid process.

The Human Resources Development Foundation submitted a lower bid for the new grant — $1 million, compared to $1.4 million for Good News Mountaineer Garage.

The proposal calls for 250 cars to be donated next year, but the Human Resources Development Foundation only budgeted for 215 cars to fix, maintain for 30 days, and pay taxes and registration fees.

Rowe's letter also says that state officials may have changed, or "reconstructed," Good News Mountaineer Garage's bid without consulting the group's leaders.

To contact staff writers Scott Finn and Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 357-4323.


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