By Johnny Kampis | Missouri Watchdog
ST. LOUIS – Four years after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act began providing economic stimulus funds to local government agencies across the country, billions sit unused and billions more will never be spent because the money is tied to expired projects.
The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which tracks the money, reports that $48 million is committed to 82 Missouri projects that haven’t even started, while more than $900 million is tied up in another 1,000 or so stimulus efforts that are not yet complete.
If the numbers can be believed.
A Missouri Watchdog investigation found that in many cases reporting mistakes may be inflating those figures.
Nationwide, the recovery board lists more than $3 billion in funds committed to more than 3,100 projects that haven’t begun and $128 billion — yes, billion with a B — tied to projects still in progress.
That’s out of more than $800 billion that’s been issued since Congress passed ARRA in 2009.
An examination of the Missouri list shows that of the 82 projects not started, 14 received grants, contracts or loans of more than $1 million. The awards for 10 of those seven-figure plans were made back in 2009, but according to the recovery board reports they haven’t even started.
At first glance, those shovel-ready projects seem to be missing their shovels, but clerical errors would seem to boost those numbers, too.
Slow-moving projects and accounting mistakes
In some cases the work may be nearly finished, but perhaps a mischecked box on a reporting form tells a different story.
Take a project by the Atchison County Wholesale Water Commission as an example. The agency received two grants totaling $10 million from the Department of Agriculture to build a water treatment plant, wells, towers and transmission lines to serve multiple cities. Although the project is listed as not having started, a description of activities says the project is under way and lists several accomplishments.
Kyra Mills, chairwoman of that water commission, was surprised to learn of the project’s status listing when contacted by Missouri Watchdog on Monday. She said the job of filing quarterly status reports has been farmed out to another agency.
“I can assure you the project is almost complete,” she said. “I guess when we started using those funds no one went in there and changed the status of the project.”
Plattsburg is another story. The northwest Missouri city got a loan of $4.3 million to do similar work on its water system, but the project is still in the design revision stage. Although the funds were awarded on May 12, 2009, construction on the project won’t begin until this spring at the earliest, according to the quarterly report from December.
Watchdog attempted to reach the listed contact, D.J. Gehrt, but the receptionist at Plattsburg City Hall said the former city administrator had been replaced by Joe Trotter. He didn’t return a call Monday.
Facility Defense Consultants Inc. got a $5.1 million contract from the Department of Veteran Affairs to install advanced metering systems in several VA campuses in Kansas, Missouri and Illinois.
The recovery board lists the project as not having started. FDC President Brett Hanke told Watchdog that’s not true.
“All the reports are filed,” he said. “They just didn’t update it.”
It turns out the same project is listed twice under two different project numbers. The recipient profile page for FDC describes the Wentzville-based business as having received two awards totaling nearly $10.3 million, but in reality one notation is the initial award and the second is a change order that added about $60,000 to the project, which was completed in 2011.
“They show one as started and one as not completed, but they’re the same project,” Hanke said, before adding, “Well, it is the government.”
The Missouri project completion status page further muddies the picture of how many projects are actually incomplete by listing different numbers than the recipient project state page. Both pages cite recipient reports as sources and say they were updated on Jan. 30.
While mistakes appear to inflate the amount of money awarded to projects not started or completed, it’s not in doubt that billions of dollars committed to the stimulus have expired and will now pool in various federal bank accounts for years.
The recovery board posted a status report that shows as of June 2012 more than $2 billion of funds that were available for the ARRA handouts had expired. In some cases, the appropriations were not awarded before a deadline, and in others they weren’t used within a specified time frame. Sometimes, awards were adjusted later and funds were returned to the issuing agency.
Since that report’s nearly a year old, expect the number to rise significantly when it is updated. Ed Pound, communications director for the recovery board, said that should take place next month.
“That money can’t be used,” he told Watchdog. “It goes back to the agencies that issued it.”
Government spending averted, right? Well, sort of.
That money will stay on the books of the issuing agencies for five years to cover invoices for projects before being returned to the U.S. Treasury. The government will be free to begin spending the billions of taxpayer money in 2017 or so.
Pound said individual projects have different deadlines that specify completion dates.
“It’s whatever is in the agreement,” he said. “I know there are waivers on some of this.”
Although the deadline to issue most of the funds has passed, there’s no drop-dead date for all of them to be spent because no end date was included in the recovery act. The recovery board’s description of the ARRA says that while “projects are focused on jumpstarting the economy, others are expected to contribute to economic growth for many years.”
On the other hand, the recovery board — created to be the watchdog of the stimulus funds — will cease to exist in October.