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Worker retraining center faces looming federal cuts

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A local organization that helps train people for new careers is staring over the edge of the fiscal cliff, and jobs could be the first to plummet, officials told Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, on Friday.

The fiscal cliff, in Washington parlance, refers to a series of budget cuts and tax hikes that are set to take effect in January if Congress does not act. Locally, it could mean an 8 percent cut to the WorkPlace’s $800,000 in federal aid. The organization, based in Watertown, has already been cut from a high of $3 million in federal aid that it received more than a decade ago.

“That’s the important part — that everyone understands what these budget cuts mean,” said Cheryl A. Mayforth, the board’s director, after taking Mr. Owens on a tour of the organization’s Coffeen Street building.

Ms. Mayforth said if the cuts go through as planned, the organization’s Lewis County outreach will be all but zeroed out. She said the organization would have to lay off workers. And cuts unrelated to the WorkPlace, especially to defense contractors, could mean layoffs locally, making caseloads shoot up at a time when the organization isn’t able to meet increasing demand.

In 2011, to avoid a default on the nation’s debt, Congress enacted the Budget Control Act. The law tasked a committee of Congress to come up with cuts to the budget. If the committee failed — as many previous efforts in Congress had — $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts were set to take effect in January 2013. The point of the cuts was to make them so calamitous, blind and across-the-board that Congress would have no choice but to work together, according to supporters of the law. But the committee failed to come up with any recommendations, so the cuts are now scheduled for only a few months away.

Mr. Owens voted to approve the Budget Control Act.

“Everyone who voted for the bill,” Mr. Owens said, rattling off a list of high-profile Republicans, ”thought we could reach common-sense solutions.”

Congress is expected to address the cuts in the session of Congress between the Nov. 6 election and January, when newly elected legislators take office and the political heat from the presidential and congressional elections dissipates.

But Matthew A. Doheny, Mr. Owens’s Nov. 6 opponent, said Mr. Owens shouldn’t have voted for the legislation in the first place.

“I think it’s hypocritical. He voted for the sequestration,” said Mr. Doheny, a Watertown Republican. “He is part of the problem.”

Among the sticking points preventing a deal in Congress is over whether to raise income taxes on the wealthy to reverse the budget cuts. Republicans have rejected Democratic proposals to let the George W. Bush tax cuts on the wealthy expire.

That debate is playing out locally, too. Mr. Owens said letting the Bush tax cuts expire, which would make the wealthy pay more in taxes, could help pay to reverse the cuts. Mr. Owens said such a move hasn’t proved in the past to be harmful to the economy. The matter is ripe for negotiation. The cuts will expire in January, at the same time as the budget cuts go into effect.

Mr. Doheny is against letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthy, warning it could hurt the people trying to create jobs in a sour economy. He also wants to cut federal grants that particular companies or industries receive, such as the energy production tax credit that helps buttress the wind power industry.

But both candidates have said eliminating inefficiencies in government, including the Department of Defense, should play a role in reversing the cuts.

Mr. Owens said organizations such as the WorkPlace are an important part of filling an estimated 3,200 unfilled jobs in the north country. Mr. Doheny, who has worked to burnish his budget-cutting bona fides throughout the election, also said the WorkPlace should get federal aid.

“I think what we need to do is streamline these retooling and retraining centers, but I do think it helps,” he said.

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