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Follow the money: Recovery.gov tracks stimulus spending but with some oddities

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 28, 2009 - Taxpayers have 787 billion reasons to care about where money from the federal stimulus package is going, but finding the answers isn't always easy.

Since Congress approved $787 billion in February to help the country recover from a recession whose depth was far from clear, state and local governments as well as private businesses, schools and others have submitted applications for the funds.

Now, the federal government is working on letting people know just where all that money has gone.

"The whole idea is to be very transparent, to get information out to the public so they can see where the money is going and hold accountable the outfits that get the money," says Ed Pound, spokesman for Recovery.gov, the effort that includes a highly detailed website, maps, videos and more.

"It's a very big undertaking and quite unusual for the federal government."

In updated figures released on Friday, the White House said the stimulus package had created or saved 15,149 jobs in Missouri and 24,448 jobs in Illinois.

One of the website's key features is a map that lets you search for recipients in a variety of different ways: by state, by county, by ZIP code or by congressional district, and by whether the money is reported by the recipient or by a federal agency. Blue and gold dots show where funds have been sent; click on the dots, and more information appears.

Soon, Pound said, even more grant and loan data will be available, and searching will be easier and more comprehensive.

Given how much information is available, the map is useful -- even addictive at times -- but it can also be hard to navigate. 

But even with all that information and all that help, the site has glitches -- for example, the parts where the government says money was awarded but the recipients say they never saw it and, in some cases, never even tried to get it.

"I don't even know that we applied for it," said Sandy Sigmund, director of the Healing Arts Center in Maplewood. The recovery.gov map says the center got grants totaling $15,800.

"They said we have received it, but no one here has seen any of the money."


But the raw numbers don't tell the whole story, or even much of it at all for anyone who wants to know exactly how the money is being used. For that, you have to go to the map and zero in on the area you are curious about -- or just browse at random.

When you do, you can get a better idea of what difference the stimulus program is making -- and how hard it can be to keep track of 787,000,000,000 dollars.

A sampling of the colored dots on the recovery.gov website shows a variety of reported recipients of money -- everything from local governments or construction companies working on public projects to less expected places like the Kolache Factory in Brentwood, which sells Eastern European pastries, and a Metro East firm that sells jewelry.

One caution, though. A call to the jewelry firm brought the response that they had not applied for any money. The new owner of the Kolache Factory said he had just taken over the business with the help of a Small Business Administration loan, but the amount did not match the $129,600 figure on the recovery.gov website.

Why the discrepancy? Primarily because of the way the funds are reported, and the large number of federal agencies involved.

In the case of the jewelry firm, while it did not apply for a grant under the federal stimulus plan, it did apply for -- and receive -- a $35,000 line of credit from the Small Business Administration. What the stimulus plan did cover was the $1,000 application fee that the company normally would have had to pay. So it did benefit from the stimulus money, just not in the way and in the amount that recovery.gov makes it appear.

Of the recipients on the map who did get the funds, those contacted said the process was fairly simple, though reporting can be more complicated than with other federal funds.

Yie-Hwa Chang, president of Mediomics LLC in Ladue, said he thought his firm got a $63,366 grant for work on antibody-based detection proteins because it supplements money he already receives from the National Institutes of Health.

He said it took only about three days to complete the application -- but within a week he had to file his first quarterly report on the money. "The reporting is more complicated than the application," he said.

Chang said peer reviewers evaluate the proposals, and Mediomics' previous experience helped with the new funding. "When we got funded," he said, "we always got a very high score, so we had a very high priority."

At Concordia Seminary in Clayton, which received $34,929, Mike Louis, the chief financial officer, said the money would help pay for its federal student work-study program. Students who qualify for the aid fill various jobs on campus, he said.

Typically, Louis said, the seminary applies for $200,000 for the program. The amount it receives has varied, with the school making up the difference between what it needs to spend, which generally is from $600,000 to $800,000 each year, and what it gets in funding.

He said Concordia had never applied for stimulus funds per se, but the money is about the same as it usually gets, just from a different government source.

"On March 24, 2009, we were notified by the Department of Education that we would be getting $200,000 in federal work study money -- exactly what we had applied for," Louis said.

"The next day, March 25, we were told that the entire $200,000 had been rescinded; instead on March 30, we received a grant from the Department of Education for $165,071 and a second grant for $34,929." He said he did learn until last week that the second grant was from the stimulus package.

He said the quarterly reporting requirement is stricter than previous rules, which required annual reporting. "It doesn't make any difference to me," Louis said, "but I assume the federal government is going to have to hire people to review the reports.

"It's not different money, and it is no more money; it's just the way they packaged it."

In Collinsville, the Madison County Housing Authority will be using more than $1.8 million in stimulus money -- plus another half a million dollars of its own capital funds -- to rehab the 50-year-old, seven-story Braner Building, which has 75 housing units for the elderly and disabled.

Dorothy Hummel, deputy director of the authority, said the project has been postponed many times, and the upgrade of everything from floors to ceilings to kitchens to sewage supply lines is long overdue. If she had her way, the work would go even further than it will.

"I wish it was a gut rehab," she said, "but we don't have enough money. What we don't have money for is to replace elevators in a 50-year old high rise. That would have been another $300,000 or so.

"If you lived in housing that was 50 years old, your kitchen cabinets would have been replaced. As far as I'm concerned, we're making up for years of neglect, and years of inadequate funding. "

Hummel said the federal government's regulations for applying for and reporting on the stimulus money are new and a bit cumbersome. But given how long the project has been put off, she said it's definitely worth the effort.

"There's no swimming pool being added, no valet parking garage," she said. "It's all a necessity. We love serving the elderly and disabled, and we have a long-term interest in owning this building. We are eternally grateful to get this funding."


The latest dollar and job totals for Missouri, Illinois and the nation stack up this way:

Missouri, agency reported:

Announced: $4.614 billion

Available: $4.286 billion

Paid out: $1.736 billion

Missouri, recipient reported:

Awarded: $144.1 million

Received: $54.0 million

Jobs created: 475

Illinois, agency reported:

Announced: $10.769 billion

Available: $9.951 billion

Paid out: $5.341 billion

Illinois, recipient reported:

Awarded: $473.8 million

Received: $21.7 million

Jobs created: 288

United States, agency reported:

Announced: $310.125 billion

Available: $289.696 billion

Paid out: $120.125 billion

United States, recipient reported:

Awarded: $14.623 billion

Received: $2.162 billion

Jobs created or saved: 30,383 from federal contracts only

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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