WASHINGTON -- Three weeks before the Peace Corps' Minneapolis office celebrates its new home with an open house, the agency is already planning to shut the doors.
Citing budget concerns and a new recruiting method, the Peace Corps has announced plans to close its Minneapolis and Denver offices at the end of the year. The decision has outraged several members of Congress from Minnesota, including Rep. Betty McCollum, who called for the program to reexamine the cuts.
The Peace Corps, which sends volunteers worldwide on two-year stints, currently has 11 regional offices. Closing two would save $1.5 million and eliminate at least three of the 14 staff positions in those offices. Minneapolis' operations would be merged into Chicago's.
McCollum, a Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, sent a letter Monday to Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter when the closures were announced after the committee approved the president's $343.5 million budget for the agency.
"It is my goal to see a growing number of highly qualified, diverse and determined Americans of all ages committing themselves to serve our country as Peace Corps volunteers," McCollum said. "This plan to close the Minnesota and Colorado recruitment offices raises considerable questions about the Peace Corps' future direction."
The Minneapolis office, which moved to a new space this summer, recruits volunteers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and North and South Dakota. Colleges in the region are traditionally among the top schools in providing volunteers.
In a letter Tuesday, Tschetter said the Peace Corps doesn't anticipate that its funding bill will pass during this session, so the agency is trying to work within its current budget. It is also facing an estimated $8.7 million loss in fiscal year 2008 from the weakening dollar, and the tight budget could decrease the number of volunteers worldwide by up to 5 percent, or 400 people.
Tschetter said the office mergers are part of a nationwide update to the agency's recruiting method, which he said will be a more efficient field-based model with recruiters stationed in the nation's biggest volunteer bases for more personal contact with potential applicants.
Other Minnesotans in Congress, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Keith Ellison, both Democrats, oppose the Peace Corps' move.
Curt Rahman of St. Louis Park, who served in the Peace Corps from 1981 to 1983 on the Pacific island of Kiribati, said the office's closure could affect the agency's visibility in the Twin Cities at a time when qualified Minnesota volunteers are needed.
"[Minnesotans] care about the rest of the world and we care about other people, so it's a good place to draw volunteers from," he said.
His wife, Cindy Jurgensen, served with him and said the news raises concern, but she tries to stay positive. "At least there is going to be a Peace Corps," she said. "If there isn't enough money and this is the only way to do it, I'd rather have the whole organization stay afloat."
Emily Kaiser • 202-408-2723