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COMMENTARY: Federal stimulus funds: Who's counting?

By   /   April 24, 2012  /   No Comments

By Kevin Binversie

It is often said that taking federal money comes with strings. But sometimes, you begin to wonder if the government is creating strings just to mess with you.

As part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the feds sent the City of Sheboygan more than $2.5 million in stimulus funds. The overwhelming majority of the funds were earmarked for the purchase of five clean-diesel buses and two service vehicles.
 
Every quarter, government agencies, nonprofits and other organizations that received federal stimulus funds are required to file a report telling the feds how they spent the money and how much money is left.
 
The Sheboygan project was one of 11 in Wisconsin for which a federal report was not submitted. In all, these projects account for more than $10.5 million in stimulus funds — and landed those agencies on Recovery.gov’s Quarter 4 of 2011 Non-Compliance List.
 
Is this evidence that billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds have been lost? Is Sheboygan sitting on unused funds? Did it use the funds for some other purpose?
 
No. According to the projects page on Recovery.gov, the website set up to track stimulus spending, Sheboygan has had the buses and the service vehicles in its fleet for years.
 
In fact, Recovery.gov shows the City of Sheboygan received all seven vehicles by 2010 — the service vehicles by the end of the summer, the five buses arrived from California-based manufacturer Gillig by the end of autumn.
 
Since then, with about $70,000 remaining on the grant, quarterly reports from the Sheboygan Transit Authority to the federal government have consisted of the following words according to Recovery.gov: “NO ACTIVITY SINCE LAST UPDATE.”
 
Similar non-compliance reports came in from Green Bay, Eau Claire and Appleton. Like Sheboygan, they bought new buses years ago for their transit authorities with stimulus funds, and all have nominal amounts remaining on their grants.
 
How did Sheboygan end up on the list? It missed the late December filing deadline when its last director retired at the end of 2011. This led to the report not being filed on time.
 
The purpose of the non-compliance list is to help the federal government keep track of stimulus funds and — as Recovery.gov announces prominently on its website — to help prevent “fraud, waste and abuse.” But there’s something amusing about the image of a federal bureaucrat taking the time to report that people with no activity on their federal account failed to report that they’d done nothing with their few remaining funds.
 
How many municipal governments, private companies and third-party groups with small amounts of stimulus funds left have to go through this red tape?
 
Local officials are understanding.
 
“It’s a little redundant, but I understand why it has to be done,” said Tracy Robinson, Sheboygan’s new transit authority director. “This is a lot of money we’ve been handed here, and they want to know what we’ve done with it.”
 
Yes, but the feds could oversee these funds in other ways. Why doesn’t the federal government allow for refunds to the treasury if projects came under budget? Or award local officials who were extra frugal with their allotments?
 
Until some sort of change in that policy, those with remaining stimulus funds have a debit card full of taxpayer dollars they can use until it is dried up. Take Sheboygan: It plans to use the remaining stimulus money to purchase a third service vehicle this summer.
 
Why not? It’s not as if we have a federal debt to consider or anything?
 
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He has served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at kevin.binversie@franklincenterhq.org.

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