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Strapped family seeks stimulus slice

The Russell family’s 2005 Christmas photo:  Melody and  husband Gary sit with their children Greg and Rebecca, in back, and, in front from left, Rachel, Hannah and Teresa.   (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
The Russell family’s 2005 Christmas photo: Melody and husband Gary sit with their children Greg and Rebecca, in back, and, in front from left, Rachel, Hannah and Teresa. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE – Sitting in her wheelchair in her three-bedroom, one-bath 1915 home in south-central Idaho, Melody Russell admits she’s not a bank. She’s not a carmaker or an insurance firm or a wind turbine. Even so, the 48-year-old mother of five with multiple sclerosis and a husband with a transplanted liver and no colon would like a share of the $787 billion federal stimulus.

After watching fat cats on Wall Street reap federal largesse in recent months of economic turmoil, Russell said she got to thinking: Why not regular folks like her?

So when Gov. Butch Otter last month announced he was taking ideas from all comers on how to divvy up the state’s chunk of the stimulus, estimated to be as much as $1 billion, she was ready. In a Feb. 18 letter, she asked Otter for help to pay off $34,000 in debt on two credit cards. She said the debt is due mostly to her family’s medical bills.

If there’s a little left over, Russell said, she might buy a new pair of shoes.

“Because I wear braces, my shoes are kind of big. I wear a size 9,” she said Thursday. “I personally thought that President Obama, instead of giving so much money to the banks and the car dealers, he needed to give more money to the regular person, so we could stimulate the economy.”

Her husband, Gary, has had two liver transplants at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the result of a bile duct disease that also destroyed his colon.

Melody Russell, who works sometimes as a substitute teacher in Shoshone, Idaho, gets $761 a month in federal disability payments, after giving up the family ambulance business, Southern Idaho Medical Services, three years ago because she could no longer walk.

Her physician, Dr. Keith Davis, practices at Shoshone Family Medical Center in the former railroad town – and has seen Russell for 23 years.

Her multiple sclerosis limits her mobility; she can no longer drive. “She’s on medication through a neurologist,” Davis said. “She gets around with some restriction. She has a motorized cart she’s able to use to get around.”

Last month, Otter asked state agencies – and anybody else with a project they thought fit the stimulus bill – to submit plans by March 4. Now a team of advisers hopes to make a recommendation to the Republican governor by March 19, before Otter makes a final recommendation to the Legislature. In all, Idaho got 1,029 requests for money from the state’s share of the $787 billion federal stimulus, not including those from state agencies. Non-state agency requests totaled about $4.8 billion.

Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary, said it appears that some applicants decided to “shoot the moon.” “It’s obviously more than we’ve got to go around,” he said.

There’s a $48 million request bid from Canyon County for a new jail. Idaho Power Co., the state’s largest utility, wants about $11 million, for weatherization and home energy audits, among other things. One company, Idaho Wind Energy LLC, put in a bid for $640 million, to build three wind farms. Ada County, where Boise is located, wants nearly $260 million to expand its landfill. The list goes on for 23 pages: wildfire mitigation, wells and pump houses, even an equestrian center. Police in Mountain Home want $18,900 worth of stun guns.

The governor has appointed a committee, including three former governors and five former state budget directors, to review all the requests and make recommendations to him. “They’ll look at what’s permissible, what isn’t; what is in, potentially, the best interest of the state, and what isn’t,” Hanian said. “They’re going to weigh the pros and cons of this and try to provide some analysis.”

Wayne Hammon, Otter’s budget chief, is among those reviewing proposals, including Melody Russell’s $34,000 credit card debt plan. Hammon wouldn’t comment on individual requests, but said, “It’s clear just from a cursory read of them there are some that don’t meet the eligibility requirements.”

Maybe he’s talking about the Girl Scouts of Silver Sage Council Inc.’s request for $321,527, to offset “lower receipts.” Melody Russell, who hadn’t told her husband yet about asking for the money, figures Hammon is probably talking about hers, too.

Asked if she really expected to get anything, she answered, “To be honest, no.”

“But I can always wish and hope,” she said. “I mainly wanted the governor to know that there’s people here who that stimulus is not going to help at all. My 10-year-old was telling me the other day, her clothes were getting a little small.”

Staff writer Betsy Z. Russell contributed to this story.