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Cities, towns find limits on stimulus cash

Some town leaders say the federal stimulus package, with its promise of creating jobs, is neglecting to invest in the cornerstones of community life, from new city halls to recreation centers.
Stimulus Limits
Because of restrictions on howfederal stimulus money can be spent, libraries, like this one in Chesterfield Township, Mass., aren't in line for funding.Paul Sancya / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some town leaders say the federal stimulus package, with its promise of creating jobs, is neglecting to invest in the cornerstones of community life, from new city halls to recreation centers.

There's some money to hire police officers, but no money to rebuild the stations they work in. The opposite's true for firefighters. No money to hire more, but at least some funding to improve firehouses.

Money for wind turbines? Yes. New traffic signs? Yes. Hybrid car discounts? Yes.

Money for new libraries? No. New town halls? No. Swimming pools? No. School athletic stadiums? No.

While there may be some money to plunk solar panels on that aging municipal building, there's no money set aside to replace it.

"This is trickle-down stimulus," said Joseph Fernandes, administrator of Plainville, Mass., a town of about 8,000 south of Boston. Fernandes was hoping for help building a new, $12.5 million fire, police and town hall complex, which he said could put people to work as quickly as some of the highway projects receiving stimulus dollars.

Early on, many state officials hoped the stimulus money would arrive in huge blocks with few strings. Most states pulled together what amounted to massive statewide wish lists, raising hopes for municipal makeovers.

In the end, Congress opted to funnel much of the money through existing federal channels and created a confusing hodgepodge of rules about which local projects might be eligible.

"Does it really matter if it's ... a police station or a fire station?" Fernandes said. "At the end of the day it's money that would have to be spent eventually."

Other local officials share that frustration.

No money for libraries
When Chesterfield Township moved its library into one of Michigan's many abandoned factories in 2005, there was enough money to rehab only half of the aging structure. So when library director Marion Ashen Lusardi heard Congress was working on a stimulus package to spur construction, her eyes lit up.

"We thought this was great; maybe we can finish off the other half of the library," said Lusardi, who spends her days assisting laid-off auto workers research jobs with the help of just eight Internet-connected computers.

Those dreams evaporated when Lusardi learned Congress hadn't set aside any stimulus money for projects like new libraries.

Jeffrey Simon, Director of Infrastructure Investment in Massachusetts, said he first imagined the stimulus package as a modern-day version of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration, "where you end up with a whole series of phenomenally well-designed buildings that have lasting character."

"That's not what was in the legislation," Simon told The Associated Press. "It just plain didn't come out that way."

The frustration some municipal leaders feel must be balanced with the larger goal of putting as many people back to work as quickly as possible to help jump start the economy, according to Sen. Edward Kennedy.

"It's our hope and belief that the economic opportunity from this assistance will far outweigh the possible lost opportunities," said Kennedy, D-Mass.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, one of just three Republicans who voted in favor of the stimulus package, said some restrictions were needed to help guarantee the money is funneled to "shovel-ready," job-creating projects.

The sheer scale and complexity of the stimulus package has added to the confusion.

State officials were at first told there would be no money for the construction of new school buildings — in part because Senate moderates insisted on dropping a proposed school construction program before they would vote for the bill.

But the U.S. Department of Education has since said the law was worded in such a way that the construction of new elementary and high schools is authorized. Some stimulus money can even be spent on private schools, although religious schools aren't eligible.

Some communities are hoping they can find ways to work around the rules to help chip away indirectly at the costs of new buildings — such as tapping into stimulus dollars intended for renewable energy.

Going green
Jim Johnson, interim city administrator of Vernonia, Ore., is appealing for renewable energy stimulus money to help defray the cost of a new school building needed to replace the town's elementary, middle and high schools, damaged in a 2007 flood.

"We want to make the school one of the greenest schools in the country," said Johnson, who is hoping to use stimulus money to pay for a green roof for the school. "If you can't build the whole school, you might be able to build a green component."

In Barnstable, Mass., officials are looking for $910,000 to help equip a new community and youth center under construction with a wind and solar energy system, while officials in Ashburnham, Mass., hope for $2.3 million to build a new Department of Public Works building, one they said would feature a rooftop solar array and radiant heat floors.

And in Sanford, Maine, Town Manager Mark Green had begun to despair of seeing any stimulus money until he got word the town would receive $87,000 in energy grants. Green said it would help the town make its historic — and drafty — century-old town hall energy efficient.

"We had started doing energy conservation improvements but ran out of money," he said. "We're not looking for the federal government to do everything for us ... but we do appreciate the money we've gotten."

Mayors and town administrators may also be able to use some of the stimulus dollars to free up other money that they can then direct to projects that don't directly fall in the stimulus funding stream.

In Chesterfield Township, librarian Marion Ashen Lusardi isn't giving up hope of one day expanding her library to the other half of the factory building — or better yet, into a brand-new facility built on federal surplus land.

"People are really struggling here and as the public library we are doing everything we can," she said. "There is unfortunately a lot of empty factory space here."