Saturday, November 28th, 2009
Discrepancies in Web info fuels criticism and distrust
Is the stimulus working?
By Shelley Grieshop
The total amount of stimulus money received in the Grand Lake area and its affect on the job market is difficult to track due to conflicting and sometimes erroneous information posted by state and federal governments.
The purpose of President Barrack Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is to "stimulate" the lagging economy by dishing out grants, loans and contracts for shovel-ready projects across the country. At least one award has directly benefited Rockford residents.
But recovery dollars have trickled down slower than expected, the calculation of jobs created and saved has come under fire and the method for tracking funds appears riddled with errors.
One such mistake was discovered this week by The Daily Standard while attempting to find completed stimulus-funded projects in the Mercer and Auglaize county area (there are only two). According to the U.S. government's Web site at recovery.org, $462,277 was awarded through the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) for highway, street or bridge work within the city of St. Marys.
The problem? The money was never received by St. Marys or Auglaize County officials as stated on the Web site. The actual road paving project, which created 3.47 jobs, occurred in the city of Urbana in Champagne County.
Ed Pound, a spokesman for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board in Washington, D.C., defended recent attacks on the accuracy of the federal Web site and the error discovered by the newspaper.
"The data you're referring to is provided to us by the agency who received the funding. We have to count on it being reliable, we have no way of checking otherwise," Pound said.
ODOT spokeswoman Paula Putnam defended the transportation agency by placing the blame on the contractor who performed the work and submitted the data. She promised to investigate the matter further.
Web design differences could be one reason why it's difficult to compare state and federal figures. The Ohio recovery Web site - as of the end of October - shows nearly $5.7 million going to Mercer County. In contrast, the federal Web site claims the county netted more than $10 million.
Auglaize County, according to the state, was awarded approximately $2.5 million. The federal Web site, however, says the county is getting double that figure - nearly $5.8 million.
Information on jobs created or saved per county is not available from the state and is incomplete from the feds because the vast majority of projects aren't finished. The Ohio Web site states that $1.6 billion has been awarded so far, with 13,144 full-time positions created or saved statewide.
Meanwhile, Ohio's unemployment rate continues to climb to the highest in decades - 10.5 percent for the month of October.
Most of the local stimulus awards have or will benefit school districts, ODOT-sponsored infrastructure work and agencies that help the poor and unemployed. One newly-opened Celina business, Friendly Markets, was awarded a $127,000 low or no-interest stimulus loan.
Jared Ebbing, director of the Mercer County Economic Development office, said Rockford residents will pay lower water bills as a direct result of a $1.5 million stimulus grant to help fund the town's new water plant.
"The USDA Rural Development funding (a stimulus grant) meant the village did not have to go out and obtain as large of a loan as they would have needed," subsequently lowering residents' water bills, he said.
The benefit to the community is contrasted by the minimal number of jobs created/saved with Rockford's recovery cash: 4.5 jobs.
Two other large stimulus awards to the county include more than $1 million for the East Jefferson Phase 3 sanitary sewer project, "which would not have moved forward without it," Ebbing added, and a $600,000 allotment for the Marion Township sewer system project.
Ebbing said officials probably would have received some type of funding for the Marion Township project if the stimulus award had not come through. But job creation/saved figures won't be available on the sewer projects until they are completed, he added.
Ebbing said he likes the idea that stimulus money is typically distributed through county agencies for transparency sake.
"Most have a good 'checks and balances' system in place," he added.
Although he believes it's important to go after as much funding as possible, he's not sold on the government's overall stimulus plan.
"Personally, in a perfect world, our taxes would be half as much and we'd use our own dollars to complete the projects we have," he said.
Because Mercer County officials tend to spend money more frugally, he believes they would efficiently use 99 cents out of every taxpayer dollar - "not a nickel," which is often the amount returned to us from the government, he explained.
"But we don't live in a perfect world and we have to work to get every dollar back we send in, so we'll continue to raise our hands up as high as we can like everyone else," Ebbing said.