By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Pam Johnson admits she’s in over her head.
“I’ve gotten close to being in tears, saying ‘I can’t do this,’” confessed Johnson, interim director of American Indians Against Abuse, or AIAA, a nonprofit task force of 11 Wisconsin tribes taking on the under-reported problem of domestic abuse and sexual assault against Native American women.
Johnson, who began her professional tenure with AIAA as a training consultant, said she could handle the emotional burdens of her first point of service — educating an often closed-off culture on how to help victims of violence.
But paperwork nearly brought Johnson to weeping.
She said she suddenly was catapulted to interim director, after the organization went through some turbulent times, with top managers leaving their posts.
Johnson said she was left to deal with incomplete and mountainous paperwork required to comply with federal government reporting standards in tracking stimulus money.
AIAA in August 2009 was awarded a $350,300 grant from the $840 billion federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or ARRA, commonly referred to as the stimulus fund.
The organization is among more than 6,800 Wisconsin entities — nonprofits, government agencies and more — awarded more than $4 billion in taxpayer money, ostensibly to bolster a sagging economy dogged by a deep recession, put people back to work and enhance community services.
AIAA joined 10 other stimulus recipients in Wisconsin making what one federal official billed as the “Wall of Shame.” The agencies, according to the U.S. government, failed to account for the money, as of January, the most recent reporting cycle.
They are known as the “non-compliers,” at least on recovery.gov, the federal government’s stimulus transparency site.
The stimulus fund recipients — from the city of Appleton to the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa — were awarded more than $10.5 million combined for everything from energy efficient buses to additional cops on the beat.
A Wisconsin Reporter review found many of the agencies did file reports after some nudging by the federal agents. Some local financial officers charged with oversight of the funds were unaware their agency was not in compliance, while at least two officials could not provide information about the status of the reports.
Ten of the 11 stimulus fund recipients had not reported in January. AIAA has missed two reporting cycles, among 34 recipients nationally to do so.
“It’s more than I can handle. There are so many things, so much accountability,” AIAA’s Johnson said.
The education and advocacy organization has spent much of its $350,000 on three training sessions at tribal reservations statewide, Johnson said, although she did not know precisely how much.
Others complained of excessive paperwork and red tape, too.
“Oftentimes we spend much more time doing the reporting than we do receiving the money,” said Lisa Remiker, finance director for the city of Appleton.
As a former auditor, Remiker said she understands the importance of compliance, particularly with so much taxpayer money at stake. But the system, she said, is onerous. With shrinking municipal resources, the finance director said she wonders whether the federal funding is worth the time and labor.
Appleton in 2009 was awarded more than $1.47 million in ARRA funds to purchase, among other transportation-related items, two 20-passenger hybrid buses.
The city, to date, has spent more than $1.3 million.
Remiker said the city official charged with filing the compliance report mistakenly thought the documents were due in February.
When the city was informed in January that it had missed the deadline, the employee tried to send the report, but was locked out of the federal system for some time, Remiker said.
Appleton sent its fourth quarter report within days after learning it missed the deadline, said Remiker, who forwarded Wisconsin Reporter a copy of the completed report.
Such errors appear to be the case for several other stimulus funding recipients.
The city of Green Bay Metro Transit System, which was awarded $2.9 million in 2009 for the purchase of eight buses, said transit director Tom Wittig, “made a mistake on an email that didn’t go through.”
He blamed the misstep on a change in city finance directors. The city’s stimulus report was filed by the end of January, Wittig said.
Polk County Administrator Dana Frey told Wisconsin Reporter the Polk County Sheriff’s Department has assured him that the agency is in “100 percent compliance as of April.”
The department received nearly $33,000 for GPS equipment.
The village of Woodville, a community of about 1,350 residents in St. Croix County, received $173,127 to hire an officer for four years.
Woodville Police Chief Lori Hetfeld told Wisconsin Reporter that “someone added an extra ‘one’” in the stimulus fund report, erroneously noting the city had received $1,173,127.
“That was fixed (Tuesday), hopefully,” the chief said. “I just spoke to them.”
In the city of Eau Claire’s case, the delay was a matter of timing, said Rebecca Noland, the city’s finance director.
Eau Claire in 2009 was awarded $2,035,400 through the Federal Transportation Administration to pay for five buses, security cameras and a shop truck.
The purchases were completed in October, Noland said. City officials believed that the last draw down meant the end of reporting requirements. The city, however, was obligated to file a final report in January. It did so a week after the deadline, Noland said.
“They even complimented us on fully spending down the grant and using the money as it was supposed to be used. A lot of organizations have not been able to spend all of the money yet,” the finance director said.
Eau Claire did return $40,000 of the stimulus money, said Noland, who added she has no problems with the accountability requirements.
“I believe the federal government put a very large sum of money into the market to stimulate the economy. I think they would be remiss if they didn’t have reporting requirements,” she said.
There’s no argument on this point from Ed Pound, spokesman for the federal Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which tracks waste, fraud and abuse in the stimulus program.
Between February 2009 to Jan. 31, 2012, the board and inspectors general had received 8,490 complaints of wrongdoing associated with recovery funds, according to the board’s website.
Agents over that period opened 1,882 investigations, with 546 cases closed without action. That’s a fragment of the tens of thousands of recipients who have to date taken in a combined $276 billion in stimulus, grants, contracts and loans.
Pound bristles at the criticism that the reporting standards are onerous.
“I think the government has tried to simplify this,” he said. “Anytime you have to fill out paperwork, people will say it’s difficult to do. If you’re going to take the money, then you need to be willing to file the reports.”
Contrary to the belief of some local government officials who have made good on compliance, Pound said their agencies will not be removed from the “Wall of Shame” this quarter.
AIAA’s Johnson gave herself a hard deadline Tuesday.
“I made a promise this morning that if I don’t get into compliance within 24 hours, I will step down,” she said.