The Montgomery County Council last week appropriated the funds needed to run a day-labor center in Gaithersburg, even as some city officials said they were not sure they want such a facility.
County Council members agreed to set aside almost $125,000 to pay for personnel and equipment for the employment center, where day laborers will be able to look for work under a supervised system.
County officials said the move shows they are committed to having a center in Gaithersburg, even though a plan to open a facility on North Frederick Avenue stalled after residents complained that they were not included in the decision-making. Residents also objected to the facility's location near several homes.
"The county is unequivocally committed to funding a day-labor center in Gaithersburg," said County Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring). "The money is there. The only issue left is for the city of Gaithersburg to work with all the community stakeholders to identify an appropriate location."
The Gaithersburg City Council moved closer this week to picking members of a task force that will decide whether there will be a day-labor center within city limits and where it would be located. Last night, the City Council held a work session to decide how the task force will be set up.
Since the plan to open the facility this fall was abruptly dropped, Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney A. Katz has apologized for not making the nearly year-long discussion more public. Katz, other city and county government officials, and church leaders have met regularly during that time to figure out how to deal with dozens of men congregating each morning next to Grace United Methodist Church on North Frederick Avenue.
The county, which runs two other day-labor centers, offered to pay the lease for a nearby building, which the city agreed to renovate. The renovations ended up being more extensive than planned -- another reason the city grew leery of the project.
City Council members said they, too, were not included in the original discussions.
"It was a mistake," said City Council member John B. Schlichting. "The council and the citizens should have been involved throughout the process, but I do believe that the mayor and the city manager have publicly apologized for the mistake in the process. I think the city as a whole is going to move ahead in a very public process."
Council Vice President Henry F. Marraffa Jr. was more harsh in his criticism. "That's not the way you do business in Gaithersburg," he said. "We pride ourselves on being open. Not only is it embarrassing, it's wrong. It's not the way to run a city."
It's unclear whether the City Council will support a day-labor center.
Marraffa said he does not want the city taking part in an operation involving undocumented immigrants. Many of the day laborers are illegal immigrants. "It's against the law for us to aid and abet an illegal operation," he said.
Other council members said they would be willing to have a center in the city, where the number of Latinos has increased over the past decade, if that's what the community wants. The city of 58,000 is 20 percent Latino.
"I think that the mayor and the city manager were on the right track in addressing the situation," Schlichting said.
He added: "I am personally concerned about the fact that some of these individuals are unregistered -- and that is a problem, but that is a federal problem. These individuals are our residents, whether they are legal or not. They are our neighbors."
Council member Geri Edens said she is open to the idea of a center but does not want the city to make a substantial financial investment in it.
"We have limited resources, and I don't think there's any sentiment on the council whatsoever to do that with our limited resources," she said.
In the meantime, Casa de Maryland, the immigrant-advocacy group that runs the county's other day-labor centers in Wheaton and Silver Spring, is exploring options for sheltering the workers during the winter.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, said one option would be to have them stay in Grace United Methodist Church until a certain time each day. Another option, he said, is to set up a trailer at another nearby church. The organization is discussing possibilities with city officials and church leaders, he said.
"We need to do something immediately because winter is right over there, and our goal is there's not going to be a worker outside in the wintertime," he said.