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Local officials scramble for stimulus cash

With different deadlines, eligibility standards, and reporting requirements for each stream of federal stimulus funds, some local officials say all the bureaucracy is blunting the plan's effectiveness.
Image: Elkhart
Andy Jones manages the Elkhart Municipal Airport, which is using $4.5 million to resurface its main runway.John Brecher /

The Obama administration’s economic stimulus bill has led to the creation of at least one new job in this Midwestern city: a summer staffer who will help officials cope with the paperwork avalanche.

With the stimulus money routed through an array of federal agencies, the city needs an extra hand to deal with the different deadlines, eligibility standards, and reporting requirements for each funding stream.

It’s a situation that tries the patience of Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore.

“If you have one in every five unemployed — until you have had that happen, you don’t really know the true meaning of the word ‘patience,’”  said Moore, whose city has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. “I would like to see it moving quicker. But I’ve learned I have to live with the rules and regulations.”

For local officials around the country, big money is at stake as the federal stimulus money trickles down. According to the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s fiscal “watchdog,” about $280 billion of the Recovery Act’s total of $787 billion will be administered through state and local governments. Much of the money is doled out by formula, but for other stimulus funds, such as a subsidy to hire additional police officers, cities and counties must compete with one another.

So far, Elkhart has garnered about $14 million in stimulus money, with several million more likely to be OK’d in the next few months.

By way of comparison, York, Pa., which has a population of about 40,000, or about 10,000 fewer than Elkhart, has so far gotten about $10.7 million in stimulus funds, most of it intended for public education.

Although getting the money is an arduous task, officials in Elkhart and elsewhere figure that grappling with the law’s complexity is the necessary price they must pay for the jobs the stimulus money will create, even if that help seems slow in coming.

“We have to fill out the forms; we have to be accountable,” Moore said. “We’re going over the same hurdles and going through the same hoops we always did for monies that came from the federal government and the state, and there are delays in that process.”

Case in point: The city has applied for $2 million from the Justice Department’s COPS program to hire 10 more police officers.

'Hurry up and wait'
The grant would cover three years’ worth of the officers’ salaries and benefits. But the city’s grants director, Robin Wenger, said that even if Elkhart wins the grant, the funds would not be available until September, and then several months of training would be required for the recruits.

So the cops would not likely hit the streets until next February, proving what might be the cardinal rule of grantsmanship – “hurry up and wait.”

“They make you rush, rush, rush … and then you sit and wait and wait,” Wenger said.

Other cities are coping with similar delays.

“What they’re saying in Elkhart, I’m hearing from across the country,” Carolyn Coleman, director of federal relations for the National League of Cities in Washington.

“There are many different opportunities for funding under the Recovery Act but there are fairly tight timelines. It’s requiring a very focused effort” by city officials, Coleman said. “Some cities are using existing (staff) resources, some are hiring additional staff, and some are re-arranging workloads.”

(Discuss: Are officials in your area using stimulus money wisely?)

Once the money is in hand, city officials must account to their federal benefactors for the dollars they spend. “Getting the money is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Robin Wenger, Elkhart’s grants director. “It is the compliance that is the work.”

Despite the red tape, the stimulus plan is helping to put some people to work in Elkhart, beyond just the summer staffer for the grants department. It’s a process that should continue as the weather warms and the construction season ramps up.

A 'shovel in the ground' moment
The city’s first true “shovel in the ground” moment is expected to take place June 9 at the Elkhart Municipal Airport, four months after President Obama visited the city to pitch his stimulus plan.

The airport’s deteriorating main runway will get a new surface paid for with $4.2 million in federal money, creating short-term work for about 250 workers, according to Mayor Moore.

Although the airport has no regularly scheduled commercial passenger service, it does serve company-owned aircraft and the city makes the case that local companies can fly in customers to woo them for new contracts. “Airports mean jobs. The largest employer in Elkhart County, Forest River, (a manufacturer of recreational vehicles) has their aircraft based here,” airport manager Andy Jones said.

Also, to do preliminary survey work on the city’s sewer overflow control plan – which will be paid for by $4 million in stimulus money – the Elkhart engineering firm Wightman Petrie hired back five surveyors it had been forced to lay off in January due to lack of work.

“I was very excited and surprised it was so soon,” said survey crew chief Ryan Brantley, who was laid off in January and rehired in March. He was on a list for potential call-back by the firm in April but is at work sooner than he expected to be.

(Blog: The 'other white meat' meets the runway)

The sewer project is slated to last 25 years. Roughly 20 workers will dig up the old sewer lines, but city engineer Mike Machlan estimates the project will create 100 jobs indirectly for truck drivers and suppliers.

Once you get beyond the big infrastructure projects, Elkhart officials say some of the funds come with restrictions that limit their usefulness.

For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency is offering a total of $156 million in its National Clean Diesel Funding program.

In theory, the city’s municipal fleet could use some of those funds to cut diesel emissions. But the program requires measurements of emissions in order to prove the required reductions. And the maximum grant for Elkhart would have been only $250,000. The city’s fleet manager voiced skepticism that the city could have accomplished much with the money.

Stimulus paradox
Two other pieces of the stimulus Elkhart is due to receive — $2.8 million in Title I money for low-income public school students and $2 million in funds for disabled students — are bound by federal rules so that none of the money can be used to fill gaps in a local school system’s budget.

The school system now confronts the paradox of possibly having to issue layoff notices to 10 or more teachers even as it is collecting nearly $5 million in stimulus largesse.

Doug Hasler, the executive director of support services for the Elkhart Community Schools, said “we’re happy to get” the money but he lamented that he can’t decide how to spend it.

“It is money we can’t use to provide general support for our programs,” he said. “It’s not funding that I’m going to be able to use to avoid having to lay off a second-grade teacher who’s a regular teacher.”

It’s an issue many other school systems are facing.

“The local superintendents are really struggling with this,” said David Shreve, an expert on education policy at the National Conference of State Legislatures. The restrictive design of the federal aid to public schools, he said, “reflects a fundamental distrust by the federal government of the states and localities to spend this money wisely.”

Despite the limits on some funds, Elkhart officials are undeterred in their search for a piece of the stimulus pie.

Mayor Moore said he is alerting Wenger and the other officials on his special stimulus committee to any funding opportunities that pop up: “As these projects come up on the computer, it’s ‘time to apply, time to pay attention.’ I send it to them so that we don’t leave any stone unturned.”