The great stimulus money hunt is about to begin
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 16, 2009 - Bills in Congress that promise a lot of money to a lot of places for a lot of projects often are likened to Christmas trees, but for Garry Earls of St. Louis County, the newly passed $787 billion stimulus package brings another holiday to mind.
"It will be a great race, maybe more like an Easter egg hunt," said Earls, who is the chief operating officer of St. Louis County.
"There will be brightly colored prizes out there to grab, and if you look in the right places, you'll get them."
But taking advantage of the stimulus money will require a lot more than just knowing the right bush to peek under. It will take preparation, diligence and an understanding of often arcane rules and regulations.
Once President Barack Obama signs the bill passed by the House and Senate last week -- a ceremony set for Tuesday in Denver -- federal agencies are expected to spell out on their websites how to get the money. There will be dozens of programs, and any one project may be tailored to fit more than category.
The hunt for stimulus money may not always go to the swiftest government, but it certainly doesn't hurt to be prepared and know what Washington is going to be looking for.
"There are a couple of problems governments are going to have," says Les Sterman, executive director of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments. His agency set a deadline of last Friday for submission of requests for the $50 million to $60 million in transportation-related projects, it will have a role in parceling out.
"One of the issues is to be able to do something fast," he said, "and another is to do something good. Most of the time, you can't do both. We are going to try as much as we can to get the best projects done in a short period of time."
To make sure they hit the ground running -- and that the ground is well-paved, with proper lighting and gutters, among other necessities -- many cities have already put together their wish lists.
In Clayton, for example, officials are seeking more than $10.7 million for some 20 projects, ranging from $2.1 million to widen and realign Gay Avenue to $15,000 for a City Hall security system. Jurisdictions throughout Missouri and Illinois have similar wish lists with varying price tags.
You can search for projects by keyword, state and city or the type of program at the Stimulus Watch website. You can also have your say about whether you think the projects sound worthwhile and read about proposals throughout the nation that have drawn public scrutiny, like a request for money for doorbells for housing in Laurel, Miss.
In all, Missouri requests for so-called shovel-ready projects total $3.76 billion; Illinois jurisdictions are listed as seeking $3.1 billion. But those projects are just an indication of what may be coming once the gates for formal applications are opened.
In St. Louis County, Earls notes that the process can be viewed as good or bad, depending on your point of view about how funding for public works projects should be granted.
"If you are a big believer in decentralizing, it's going to be good," he said. "The downside is that someone is going to stick in some not very attractive program somewhere, and they'll be able to push it through just because money is available.
"It is a great deal of energy for us to spend to keep them from having to do earmarks in Washington. They're not going to make the choices. I can assure you we're going to work hard so that whatever we do is something we can be proud of."
For smaller communities like Pine Lawn -- whose requests range from $78 million for Main Street development to $200,000 for five additional police cars -- the competition sometimes seems like a contest of municipal Davids vs. Goliaths, according to Police Chief Rickey Collins.
He noted that the city wants to become a resource for a large part of north St. Louis County, and it has asked members of Congress for help in winning stimulus grants. But, he said, Pine Lawn isn't always at the forefront of thinking for the area's elected officials in Washington.
"Most of these senators and congressmen live in communities like Clayton and Ladue," he said. "We feel disadvantaged just because of the income they have and the resources they have. We don't have those kinds of dollars.
"Pine Lawn has been struggling for a long time. We've been working diligently on changing our image and trying to put things in the community that would serve all the communities around us. We just hope that our elected officials do the right thing and know that this is a depressed area that needs jobs. We are here to stay. We just ask that government invest in small communities that will help other small communities."
Like the stimulus package itself, the whole enterprise -- from conception to application to acceptance to completion -- is on a scale that governments have not faced before. Sterman at East-West Gateway hopes the process does not compromise the goals.
"This is not the way we'd like to do things," he said. "We are all under a lot of pressure. We're trying to keep it as transparent as possible, but we all like to get results. It's going to be difficult to move projects that fast.
"It would be tragic if we reach the end of the stimulus package and still have bridges that are falling down."