By Trent Seibert | Watchdog.org
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Two million dollars-plus to build a long-needed fire station in University City, Mo.
Nine hundred thousand dollars to install environmentally friendly fixtures in senior centers, police stations and a library in New Jersey’s capital city of Trenton.
One million dollars for the rural Tennessee town of Parsons to complete a project building sidewalks and handicapped accessible ramps between the town’s downtown and a section of town with churches and businesses.
What do these projects have in common?
They are all part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the stimulus package — with the money awarded in 2009.
And one other thing: More than three years later, not one of those projects has yet to break ground.
Indeed, the U.S. government’s official website, Recovery.gov, unveiled by President Barack Obama’s administration in 2009, shows that $5.2 billion worth of stimulus contracts, grants and loans appropriated in 2009 have a status of “not started.”
There are any number of reasons why these projects have not even broken ground.
Parsons Mayor Tim David Boaz said the state’s delays in getting environmental approvals have held up completing his city’s project.
The fire chief from University City told a reporter from a St. Louis television station that a bureaucratic battle has been holding up breaking ground.
In Trenton, officials told a reporter in August that layoffs and staff cuts kept the project and grant money on the back burner.
And now those officials are scrambling to spend the money because, like all entities who have received stimulus cash and have not yet spent it, they must return the money to the federal government in February.
“This is a good example of why this type of government spending, if it’s used to boost the economy, doesn’t work,” said Patrick Knudsen, senior budget fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington D.C.-based think tank.
Knudsen said government money can seldom be spent quickly because of the many rules and red tape local governments need to go through to start projects — even if they have the money on hand. Indeed, he said, it may take years for projects to begin.
“By the time the money does get spent, the economy may already be recovering, and now you’re left with even more debt,” Knudsen said.
Another problem: It’s unclear how much stimulus money is actually sitting around, unused.
A random examination of the stimulus projects on the $27.7 million Recovery.gov website shows that at least some projects listed as “not started” have long since been started — and completed.
Those project range from small to big.
Stimulus money provided for a new library in Dyersburg, Tenn., for example, that was issued in 2009 is marked on the federal website as “not started.” But the new library in the town close to Arkansas and Missouri is just now getting its finishing touches.
And three multimillion-dollar road projects in Tennessee that are marked “not started” by Recovery.gov actually did start within months of the state Department of Transportation getting the stimulus money in 2009.
“Information on the Federal Website is obviously not up to date,” Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman B.J. Doughty told Watchdog.org via email. “The information I provided you is the most current information available for those projects — even more so than what we last reported. None of them have all closing paperwork completed, but all have had the work completed.
“We really can’t say why what you’re looking at is not in agreement with information provided by the Department.”
This is not the first time that Recovery.gov has had problems.
In April 2010, the news site Texas Watchdog reported that Recovery.gov’s electronic filing system got so overloaded that the site had to be shut down for hours. And when it rebooted, the system was choked with multiples of the same reports, filed by frustrated state bureaucrats pushing the send button over and over so as not to miss the government’s tough filing deadlines.
The federal government ended up extending the deadline.
“We experienced a significant processing shutdown,” Edward Pound, communications director for the board that oversees Recovery.gov, told Texas Watchdog. “We’re not running from this. This is all part of a program that we want to be transparent and accountable for. Keep in mind that this kind of reporting is fairly new for us. Things are moving smoothly now. And we lost no reporting data.”
And a 2009 Watchdog.org report found that, because of filing errors, Recovery.gov showed that nearly $6.4 billion was used to “create or save” less than 30,000 jobs in congressional districts that did not exist.
That said, Recovery.gov has certainly seen successes — and remains one of the best ways to track federal government spending and to download the audits of that spending.
Recovery.gov has now been honored for innovation at least six times by local and national organizations including the Ad Club of Metropolitan D.C. and the 14th annual Webby Awards. Simply put, Recovery.gov 2.0 has raised the standard for accountability and transparency in the federal government.
As a recent Newsweek article on the re-launch of the site noted: “The result is the current incarnation of Recovery.gov — which, as anyone who has spent significant amounts of time scouring government websites for information will tell you — is perhaps the clearest, richest interactive database ever produced by the American bureaucracy.”
Despite not knowing how much stimulus money is being left on the table, an estimate by DynaVox, a Pennsylvania-based, publicly traded company that received 16 separate stimulus awards, puts the number in the billions. During a conference call with shareholders in May 2012, a financial analyst referenced an unspent stimulus amount of $2 billion.
Members of Congress know there is plenty left, too.
U.S. Sen. Scott Brown has proposed legislation to use unspent stimulus for a payroll tax cut, which saw only four Republicans siding with the Massachusetts Republican.
And Republican Joseph McLaughlin, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel for a congressional seat in the Bronx borough of New York City, said one of his top priorities is to “recapture unspent stimulus money and send it back to taxpayers as rebate checks to spend as they wish.”
Contact Trent Seibert at firstname.lastname@example.org or (615) 669-9501.