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Michael Stenhouse, CEO of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a conservative think tank, and David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, are on a quest to reduce the cost of government.
On April 2, 2014, they released a report listing concrete ways to save nearly $225 million in what they view as wasteful and unnecessary spending in Gov. Lincoln Chafee's proposed budget. In a commentary published that day in The Providence Journal, they listed some eye-catching examples.
One was to save $8.4 million by eliminating the Governor’s Workforce Board, saying that despite the claim that it "helps to develop a more skilled and better prepared workforce . . . . there is little indication that the board provides any value to workers, businesses, or taxpayers. In the past year, the Governor’s Workforce Board gave out a number of outlandish grants."
Stenhouse and Williams cited two examples. One in particular caught our eye: "A grant for $5,000 went to teach an employee at a company that makes ornamental business card holders how to use Facebook and Twitter."
That's an eye-catching claim, and several media outlets quoted it. We were intrigued -- $5,000 to teach one person how to use two immensely popular social media websites? That certainly seemed to qualify as outlandish. We put on our fact-checking hats and tried to learn more.
Our first stop: the report released by Stenhouse's and Williams' organizations. It says that the board spent "$5,000 to provide social media training for employees at Ahler's Designs." It linked to a document from the board saying that the training was for three employees -- not one -- plus one student.
When we asked Stenhouse about the discrepancy, he contended that he said "an employee," in the commentary, not "one person." We don’t see the difference.
Stenhouse also said he forwarded our query to Williams, who did not respond to us.
So was the $5,000 spent to teach people about Twitter and Facebook?
Yes. And more.
According to the grant contract, it covered part of the cost of 32 hours of social media training, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+ and YouTube. It also covered 20 hours of "sales and process" training at Ahlers, a Pawtucket-based company that creates gifts and awards that are hand-crafted in Rhode Island.
Rick Brooks, executive director of the Workforce Board, said such grants are designed to improve the skills of current and future workers, and only cover part of the training costs. "We want the business to have some skin in the game," he said.
The grants come from the Job Development Fund, which is financed by the payroll tax the state levies on business to cover unemployment insurance. "The money comes from businesses and we make the money available to businesses," said Brooks.
In this case, Ahlers Designs asked for help in underwriting its training costs because it was trying to shift its business to focus on custom artwork for individuals and corporations. It needed to train more people in sales and marketing, a job mostly done by CEO Gail Ahlers, according to Ahlers and her grant application.
Companies also get a bigger grant if they agree to set up internships, which Ahlers did, training two students, not just the one that it promised to do. That's five people trained with the grant.
Both Brooks and Ahlers argued that social media skills are crucial to helping a business succeed in the Internet age, and they involve a lot more than finding friends on Facebook.
There are tricks to getting your products listed ahead of others in a Google search, techniques to avoid being smeared online by competitors, and special rules that have to be followed if you're trying to market something on a social media site.
"Knowing how to use Facebook for sales is a different skill set" than simply being a casual user, said Brooks.
In his email, Stenhouse said, "Taxpayer dollars being spent on something that millions have figured out for themselves is outrageous. We question, however, the public service value of fact-checking the semantic difference between 'an employee' and 'employees’ when a much larger public policy question is at the core of the issue."
"Aren't we trying to retrain people so we can keep the jobs? And it's the small companies that really need the help so they can hire more people," Ahlers responded.
We'll let others debate whether state funds should be spent on this type of training -- or any training at all. PolitiFact focuses on whether politicians, advocates and pundits can get their facts straight.
Michael Stenhouse and his coauthor, David Williams, made this provocative claim: "A grant for $5,000 [from the Governor’s Workforce Board] went to teach an employee at a company that makes ornamental business card holders how to use Facebook and Twitter."
So let's walk through the important elements.
Was it a $5,000 grant? Yes.
Was it just "an employee" who got $5,000 worth of training? No. And Stenhouse’s and Williams’ own report acknowledges that.
Did the grant go for training to use Facebook and Twitter? Yes. But it was also spent on other forms of social media and involved a lot more than how to "friend" someone or keep a tweet below 140 characters. In addition, nearly 40 percent of the training time was spent on more-traditional sales training.
Because the statement contains some elements of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, we rate it Mostly False.
ProvidenceJournal.com, "Mike Stenhouse and David Williams: Chafee lards his budget with $225 million in waste," April 2, 2014
RIFreedom.org, "Spotlight on Spending," April 2014, accessed April 3, 2014
GWB.RI.gov, "January Express Grants 2014," undated, accessed April 4, 2014
Emails, Michael Stenhouse, CEO, Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, April 3-4, 2014
Interviews and emails, Rick Brooks, executive director, Governor's Workforce Board, April 9, 2014, Gail Ahlers, CEO, and Linda "L'" Talamo, Ahlers Designs, April 3-4, 2014, and JoAnn Lefebvre, Shift 2 Inbound Marketing, April 3, 2014
Application and contract from Governor's Workforce Board RI and Ahlers Designs, Contract #EG-04-13, approved Jan 7, 2013, accessed April 9, 2014
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