VEC decision a bad call

Published 10:27 pm Saturday, July 19, 2014

Government agencies have a responsibility they’re notoriously inept at fulfilling: spending taxpayer dollars wisely. So it’s a breath of fresh air when leaders of those agencies talk about making decisions aimed at being good stewards of that money. But when those decisions could ultimately result in reducing the likelihood that people receiving other government benefits can get back on their feet, taxpayers are left reasonably wondering whether their government is being pennywise and pound-foolish.

Such is the case with the announcement this week that the Virginia Employment Commission plans to close its office in Suffolk by Nov. 15.

Joyce Fogg, public relations manager for the VEC, said this week that the agency’s decision is a result of falling participation rates in the few programs offered in Suffolk since the full VEC office here was closed in 2008.

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With enrollment in the programs down by 200 to 300 customers in just the past three months, she said, it no longer makes economic sense for the agency to keep a presence in Suffolk. Folks in Suffolk — and Western Tidewater as a whole, since there is also no office in Franklin, Southampton or Isle of Wight — can head to Norfolk or Portsmouth to get help getting back to work, she said. Or they can use the Internet.

It’s laudable that the VEC wants to save taxpayers money. The problem, though, is the net effect of limiting access to employment services for the agency’s generally low- to moderate-income clients is that their continued unemployment means many who might have used the services to get jobs and move off the unemployment and welfare rolls will find it much harder to do so. And in the end, supporting out-of-work people on welfare is much more expensive than helping them find employment and get back on their feet.

Further complicating matters is the rural nature of Western Tidewater, where it’s next to impossible to find public transportation to an employment commission office in Portsmouth or Norfolk. Most folks without their own vehicles will likely not even make the herculean effort necessary to the task.

The VEC’s decision regarding its Suffolk office reveals an urban mindset that’s at odds with the realities of life in Western Tidewater — and much of Virginia, for that matter. Perhaps it would be useful before the planned Nov. 15 closure for some of the agency’s leaders to actually visit Suffolk, tour some of its 430 square miles, drive to Portsmouth from Franklin and get some perspective on what life is like here in the hinterlands.