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Flaccid stimulus

Federal dollars are heading in to SLO but they're not always going where the need is

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Almost $24 billion has been allocated to California since the federal government appropriated $787 billion to jumpstart the economy. With that money state lawmakers could have all but solved the most current budget crisis. Except they couldn’t. Although unemployment is at record levels and government services are being hacked away like gangrened limbs, in SLO County as elsewhere, the money is going toward projects that may be well intentioned but aren’t going to fill the holes left by cuts in other services.

Stimulus funds are, for example, available to train more teachers at the same time dozens of teachers have lost jobs. Parking lots are being improved while welfare programs are cut. There’s a county proposal to refit streetlights with new energy-efficient LED lights, but budget cuts are expected to deplete road-maintenance funds.

At the same time some were applying for money, 132 county employees were laid off to close a $30 million deficit. And more cuts are on the way from the state.

SLO County alone has applied for at least $12.2 million in stimulus funds for government projects.

County officials applied for $69,133 to soften the slope of a parking-lot access at the Nipomo Senior Center to make it more wheelchair friendly. Another $212,716 was asked for to build a bike lane from Templeton to Paso Robles. For $119,653 the county will convert streetlight bulbs at signalized intersections to more efficient LEDs. The sheriff’s department applied for $103,015 to update its computer system. The equipment was necessary to keep the department’s data up to date, according to a staff report, but the shopping cart included 15 $900 printers and 40 $1,200 “clerical workstations.”

Nationally, Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican senator from Oklahoma, released a report claiming massive fraud and waste in stimulus projects. One such project was a $3 million turtle crossing in Florida, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Some local projects have clear economic benefits. For example: $1.3 million for youth employment and training services and $855,184 for homeless services and homelessness prevention. Such projects almost make some of the others stand out as just pet projects, the types of things sitting on the shelf awaiting funding.

Supporters say there’s more to stimulus than just economic stimulation. Emily Kryder is the communications director for the Central Coast’s representative in Congress, Democrat Lois Capps. Kryder reminded New Times that the bill is called the American Stimulus and Reinvestment Act of 2009, even if the shorthand has become just stimulus. Reinvestment can range from saving government jobs to promoting renewable energy, she said.

In a written statement, Capps said, “The economic recovery plan was crafted to distribute funding to states and communities in the most efficient means possible and with flexibility to allow for local input on how to spend this additional funding.”

Flexibility could be a subjective term. There are myriad funding pools that trickle down from federal agencies to state agencies and eventually to local governments. And each pool has its own criteria for how to spend the money. On top of everything else, the deadlines to submit proposals are tantamount to asking bureaucracies to work at the speed of light.

Some money, for example, was delineated for local schools, many of which are grappling with state budget cuts from the state and teacher layoffs. But stimulus money for schools can’t be used exclusively to save jobs. Much of the money in SLO County was dedicated to programs for low-income and special-needs children. Such programs are valuable, County Superintendent of Schools Julian Crocker said, but they don’t prevent pink slips for other people.

“It’s certainly better that we have it than we don’t,” Crocker said.

Some of the conditions attached to the money can seem downright ironic. One pot of stimulus money, Crocker said, had to be used for teacher training, but couldn’t be used to save jobs. More than 100 SLO County teachers lost their jobs this year and Crocker couldn’t speculate how many might be re-hired with stimulus funds. “It is certainly not a one-for-one kind of thing,” he said of funding and layoffs.

All federal funding has strings attached, said Dan Buckshi, a county principal administrative analyst, so it’s no surprise that stimulus money is bound in red tape, too. But the same conditions intended to provide accountability of the spending also make it hard to spend the money on top priorities.

“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” Buckshi said.

Christopher Thornberg, who’s a principal with the Los Angeles company Beacon Economics, an economic forecasting and consulting group, said it would’ve been risky for the feds to simply hand large pots of money to states, but it might have been more effective.

“Most of the immediate cash went to back-filling existing programs,” Thornberg said. And with the requirements tagged to much of the money, it’s no surprise the types of projects that local governments try to fund don’t always seem to meet the perceived intent.

“There are certain low [priority] projects that they’ve had here and there that they wanted to do … and here you have a quick and easy source of funding to do it, so you do it. That’s what stimulus is all about.”

Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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