October 6, 2009 in City

Federal money fueling projects across the region

Story By Shawn Vestal shawnv@spokesman.com, (509) 459-5431
 
Kathy Plonka photo

Iraq war veteran Justin Koogler, of Sandpoint, is a student at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene. Koogler, a father of four, received help paying for his textbooks through an NIC fund that uses federal stimulus money.
(Full-size photo)

Justin Koogler’s personal stimulus came in the form of $300 for textbooks at North Idaho College.

A returning Iraq war veteran, Koogler was having trouble covering the expenses of going back to college as a 28-year-old with four kids. “There was no way I was going to be able to pay for books,” Koogler said.

That’s when NIC officials told him about a scholarship fund they’d set up to cover textbook costs for students whose financial aid falls short.

His grant – which covered about half his book bill – is one tiny way that the $787 billion federal economic stimulus package has begun showing up in the Inland Northwest, six months after it was signed into law. It’s also in the asphalt on a new pedestrian trail in Wilbur, Wash. In business loans to midwives and construction firms and landscape companies. In grants to school districts, and in salaries for arts association employees. And it’s in road projects across the region – millions and millions of dollars in road projects.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated to projects in Eastern Washington and North Idaho. Pinning down an exact number is a slippery proposition, given the wide range of places the money is going and the bureaucratic process between approval of the funding and the spending of it. But according to one analysis, well over $200 million has been directed to Inland Northwest counties so far.

Some $3.6 billion has been allocated for projects and people in Washington state, according to an analysis by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.

The state’s recovery tracker Web site provides a higher estimate, $4.8 billion, for “money we know will be received.” Gov. Chris Gregoire says the state will eventually receive some $7 billion, providing the equivalent of 72,000 full-time jobs.

In Idaho, some $902 million has been put into the pipeline, according to ProPublica. State officials estimate that the state’s tally could eventually rise beyond $2.5 billion.

Intended as an economic jolt for a country suffering from a historic recession, the stimulus focuses heavily on infrastructure projects and was expected to provide 2.5 million jobs. But the range of grants, contracts, loans and other awards included under the stimulus is staggering, and one of the biggest criticisms of the project has been the difficulty in determining the amount of money that’s been spent and how.

According to recent polling by Rasmussen Reports, a solid majority of Americans doubt that the stimulus has helped the economy and doubt that it will be spent primarily as intended, on infrastructure projects. However, support for the stimulus has crept up from around 25 percent this summer to 36 percent in the most recent poll, released Wednesday.

Hard to count

A large part of the stimulus funding is going toward road work. In the Washington Department of Transportation’s seven-county Eastern region, $25 million in stimulus money was allocated for projects as part of the district’s $250 million, two-year construction budget.

Bids on the stimulus projects have come in under projections, allowing the DOT to add a “Tier 2” project that initially was not going to be funded, said Al Gilson, DOT spokesman.

Gilson said stimulus money is paying for paving work on several regional highways, as well as projects to add rumble strips. It’s paying to pave the stretch of U.S. Highway 395 between the Spokane County line and north of Chewelah, as well as parts of Mount Spokane Park Highway, state Route 2 near Newport, and other regional roadways.

He said that some of those paving projects were well past due and that stimulus funds allowed the DOT to move more quickly to projects on its priority list. The jobs were all put out for bids and are putting people to work.

“It allowed us to pave some projects that had no budget,” he said.

Stimulus money also is going into the Small Business Administration to provide loans to companies that have trouble qualifying for credit on the private market. It’s going to projects to install vault toilets in national forests and do striping work at military bases. It’s going to larger Pell grants for college students and more housing assistance for the poor.

But at this stage, pinning down how much money has been spent is a bit of a guessing game. The money listed by the government and other stimulus trackers is often money that’s been allocated to a federal agency to disburse, but which hasn’t actually made it into anyone’s pockets or any local organization’s budget yet.

An example is the money allotted to schools. The ProPublica analysis shows that some $7.3 million has been allotted to Spokane Public Schools for grants intended to help poor children improve academically – but that money is nowhere near Spokane yet. That was an early estimate for funds allotted through the Department of Education for grants – the district says the current figure is slightly lower – and the district is still deciding how it will approach applying for the funds.

Kate Jones, executive director of the Methow Valley Arts Alliance, is in a stimulus gray area. Her organization has been awarded a $15,000 grant, but it’s also applied for a $50,000 grant. They’re both stimulus grants, but from different organizations.

So she’s waiting to hear about the fate of the larger grant application before accepting the smaller one.

In either case, she said, the money will be a help for her small organization. The grants are intended to support salaries and staffing, which will be welcome for Jones and the other two staffers at the alliance, who have been working reduced hours and taking furloughs to get by.

She said grant funding has been shrinking and grant periods are being extended.

“We’re just sort of down in every area,” she said. The stimulus grants “are definitely going to be helpful.”

‘A great deal’ of assistance

Koogler, an Army National Guard veteran who served 11 months in Iraq with the 81st Brigade, came home in July. He was interested in returning to school under the revamped GI Bill; a variety of scholarships have helped him cover the cost of returning while keeping up with the finances at his home in Sandpoint.

Now he drives to Coeur d’Alene two days a week for classes. He’s interested in business administration, but he also might go into education or the social sciences.

John Morton, vice president for community relations at NIC, said the textbook scholarships came out of a pool of some $632,000 in stimulus money received by the state and allocated to the college. Of that, $334,000 was used to update and improve technology in classrooms, $148,000 was used for basic maintenance and repair work that was going unfunded, and the balance of $150,000 went for the textbook pool.

The money needed to be used for one-time expenses, not ongoing budget items, and officials wanted to get it into people’s hands and out into the wider economy fast, Morton said.

“They were hoping to pump money into the economy as quickly as possible,” he said.

The effectiveness of the stimulus package has been part of the discussion in an economics class Koogler is taking. He said he’s not sure about the effectiveness of the stimulus overall. As with the cash for clunkers program, for instance, he thinks it gave a shot in the arm to the auto industry, but may have left some buyers with big car payments they hadn’t fully thought through.

“I don’t know how much help it will be in the long run,” he said. “I think it gave us a little nudge in the right direction.”

For him, though, the benefits are clear.

“It has helped me out a great deal,” Koogler said.


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