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Community Action office in NYM closing: Up to 70 employees laid off

The Otter Tail-Wadena Community Action office in New York Mills is in its final days as programs shift to Mahube-Otwa Community Action.

Otter Tail-Wadena's Executive Director Davis Leino-Mills, along with Mahube-Otwa's Executive Director Leah Pigatti, presented the situation to the New York Mills City Council on May 8, and again to the newspaper in separate follow-up telephone interviews.

Pigatti said since the community actions didn't merge, but instead Mahube-Otwa took over the other agency, all Otter Tail-Wadena employees must be laid off.

Leino-Mills said closing stages on employment at the New York Mills office would take place in three steps over the next year.

Round one of termination will take place by June 30, with 22 employees affected.

Round two will affect eight employees who are currently running the Energy Assistance program; funding for that program ends on Sept. 30.

The final round will occur sometime in June 2013 and will entail the termination of 35-40 employees in the Head Start program.

Pigatti assures that laid off employees who apply for positions with Mahube-Otwa will be given preference over other applicants.

Leino-Mills said the available jobs would be posted sometime in June this year, giving employees the opportunity to apply for those jobs before they are officially laid off.

Pigatti said Mahube-Otwa will only employ as many people as the budget allows without duplicating jobs.

"The fact remains that community action funding is limited," which is the main reason the NY Mills board began looking into combining, Pigatti said.

Both directors said they don't like to lay people off, but that this would have happened eventually because of lack of funding.

Leino-Mills said the office in NY Mills would not be completely empty for another year to a year and a half. He said the federal government asked them to continue to run the Head Start program until June 2013, when another grantee is awarded the program.

Pigatti said the grant process for Head Start is complicated and time consuming, which is why Mahube-Otwa decided to hold off applying for another year.

In the meantime, Mahube-Otwa will continue to offer many of the same services and programs to poverty stricken communities and individuals as Otter Tail-Wadena has offered, including emergency assistance, energy and housing programs, and family development.

The major difference will be that the main office will be located in Detroit Lakes instead of NY Mills. Pigatti explained that Detroit Lakes is a centralized location of the five counties it serves: Mahnomen, Becker, Hubbard, Wadena and Otter Tail.

Mayor Larry Hodgson said, "We are very sad to recognize the fact that you are leaving the facility."

Pigatti said she is aware of the importance of maintaining a presence in NY Mills, and plans to do so by renting office space from Human Services in the Otter Tail County building. This office will employ one person who will offer information to clients as well as help people fill out forms.

Otter Tail-Wadena will begin to sell all of its assets in the summer of 2013, and the building itself will close that fall, Leino-Mills said.

The Perham Family Planning clinic may also see some changes when Mahube-Otwa takes over, but those changes are not known at this time.

Last December, Otter Tail-Wadena announced it would join Mahube Community Council in order to continue to offer services throughout the five county area despite a drop in funding.

By April, Otter Tail-Wadena was dissolving; the Office of Economic Opportunity at the Minnesota Department of Human Services formally recognized Mahube-Otwa as the community action provider.

A new volunteer Board of Directors representing low income, public and private sectors of the communities throughout the five county area have been chosen to govern the new community action.

(Connie Vandermay writes for the East Otter Tail Focus newspaper in Perham)