Hopeful cities, towns find limits on stimulus cash

Associated Press | 4/22/2009, 6:13 a.m.

Some town leaders say the federal stimulus package, with its promise of creating jobs, is neglecting to invest in the cornerstones of community life, from new city halls to recreation centers.

There’s some money to hire police officers, but no money to rebuild the stations they work in. The opposite is true for firefighters. No money to hire more, but at least some funding to improve firehouses.

Money for wind turbines? Yes. New traffic signs? Yes. Hybrid car discounts? Yes.

Money for new libraries? No. New town halls? No. Swimming pools? No. School athletic stadiums? No.

While there may be some money to plunk solar panels on that aging municipal building, there’s no money set aside to replace it.

“This is trickle-down stimulus,” said Joseph Fernandes, town administrator in Plainville, Mass., a town of about 8,000 located south of Boston. Fernandes was hoping for help building a new, $12.5 million fire, police and town hall complex, which he said could put people to work as quickly as some of the highway projects receiving stimulus dollars.

Early on, many state officials hoped the stimulus money would arrive in huge blocks with few strings. Most states pulled together what amounted to massive statewide wish lists, raising hopes for municipal makeovers.

In the end, Congress opted to funnel much of the money through existing federal channels and created a confusing hodgepodge of rules about which local projects might be eligible.

“Does it really matter if it’s … a police station or a fire station?” Fernandes said. “At the end of the day, it’s money that would have to be spent eventually.”

Other local officials share that frustration.

When Chesterfield Township moved its library into one of Michigan’s many abandoned factories in 2005, there was enough money to rehab only half of the aging structure. So when library director Marion Ashen Lusardi heard Congress was working on a stimulus package to spur construction, her eyes lit up.

“We thought this was great; maybe we can finish off the other half of the library,” said Lusardi, who spends her days assisting laid-off auto workers research jobs with the help of just eight Internet-connected computers.

Those dreams evaporated when Lusardi learned Congress hadn’t set aside any stimulus money for projects like new libraries.

Jeffrey Simon, Massachusetts’ director of infrastructure investment, said he first imagined the stimulus package as a modern-day version of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration, “where you end up with a whole series of phenomenally well-designed buildings that have lasting character.”

“That’s not what was in the legislation,” Simon told The Associated Press. “It just plain didn’t come out that way.”

The frustration some municipal leaders feel must be balanced with the larger goal of putting as many people back to work as quickly as possible to help jump-start the economy, according to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

“It’s our hope and belief that the economic opportunity from this assistance will far outweigh the possible lost opportunities,” said Kennedy.

Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of just three Republicans who voted in favor of the stimulus package, said some restrictions were needed to help guarantee the money is funneled to “shovel-ready,” job-creating projects.