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KS: Stimulus spending transparency clouded by problematic paperwork

By   /   December 4, 2012  /   No Comments

By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog

OSAWATOMIE — Three years ago, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act injected hundreds of billions of dollars into the U.S. economy, pumping money into thousands of projects nationwide.

At the time, President Barack Obama pledged that not only would the infusion of public dollars help the country rebound from its worst economic slump since the Great Depression, but it would be done in complete transparency via Recovery.gov, which details how every penny of each ARRA-funded project was spent.

In theory, it’s an admirable goal. In practice, ARRA transparency has been more opaque than anything.

Statewide, Kansas boasts 3,224 projects that received $2.6 billion. While most have been reported and completed without a hitch, a combination of clerical errors and inaccurate paperwork has clouded the view of 146 stimulus projects, the most notable recipient being the Kansas Department of Transportation.

HIT OR MISS: Stimulus spending data online at Recovery.gov says there are 146 projects in Kansas that have not been started, but a number of award recipients say that isn’t the case. Recovery.gov spokesman Ed Pound said its the recipient’s responsibility to ensure the data is accurate.

KDOT was one of the largest recipients of ARRA funds in the state, splitting $348 million between 152 projects across Kansas. But of those projects, Recovery.gov lists nearly 75 percent as having not yet started. That’s completely false, said Steve Swartz with the KDOT Bureau of Transportation Information.

“That’s not accurately portraying the situation in Kansas, we guarantee,” said Swartz, who noted that all but 10 of KDOT’s ARRA projects have been completed and the rest are in progress.

KDOT isn’t the only one with misleading ARRA information.

The City of Russell Housing Authority received $120,349 to repair and rehabilitate a number of apartment complexes in the small, western Kansas community. Director Paula Gibson said the money has come and gone, and that the project was completed more than a year ago.

After a bit of sleuthing, Kansas Watchdog discovered the award had been double-listed online under two different award numbers, one marked complete and the other as not yet started.

Combining an ARRA-backed grant and loan, the City of Haven received $4.9 million for a citywide upgrade of its municipal water infrastructure. But while the loan entry lists the project as less than halfway done, the grant entry says they have yet to break ground. It was a notion that amused city staffers.

“If you drive through town, you can tell (it’s in progress),” said City Clerk Leslie Warden.

Swartz said KDOT has kept on top of its paperwork and argues that the problem isn’t on the department’s end.

“Clearly there has been some glitch here in getting our info onto that website,” Swartz said. “This is one of the things we’re going to follow up on now that we’re aware of it.”

Ed Pound, spokesman for the federal Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, said at the end of the day it’s the award recipients’ responsibility to make sure their project reports are accurate. He said the board, which operates Recovery.gov, takes a hands-off approach to managing ARRA project data.

“We cannot change data. That’s for a reason — credibility,” Pound said. “We’re the oversight board, we’re not involved in the politics of this.”

While it varies between projects, many past quarterly reports for KDOT projects list conflicting status entries, making it less-than-obvious what’s really going on.

Pound said there is a process through which recipients can amend incorrect reports, but there is no punitive action. By contrast, recipients who forego reporting all together are listed quarterly on Recovery.gov’s “Wall of Shame.”

Pound said he doesn’t believe inaccuracies like this are a big deal.

“We receive information from recipients and post it online, which is our mission under the law,” Pound said. “We report this information and we do our darndest along with the federal agencies (that distributed the funds) to make sure all this data is correct. But I think in some of the cases, if all you have is a clerical error in a report, it’s not much of a story.”

Contact Travis Perry at travis@kansaswatchdog.org, or follow him on Twitter at @muckraker62.

— Edited by Kelly Carson, kcarson@watchdog.org

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Travis Perry is an investigative reporter covering news and politics for Watchdog.org's Kansas bureau. Before joining the organization, Travis graduated cum laude from Washburn University and cut his teeth as news editor for the Osawatomie Graphic, where he received numerous awards from the Kansas Press Association.

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