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States try to puzzle out stimulus dollars

It's still not clear which projects the money would go to, or what strings would be attached.

February 13, 2009|Richard Fausset and Kim Murphy

MARION, S.C., AND SEATTLE — Local governments may be giddy over the gift of the $789-billion stimulus package, but they were also scrambling this week to ensure they get their fair share of the federal windfall -- and puzzling over the complex rules that are sure to be attached to the aid money.

The resulting atmosphere, from city halls and school superintendents' offices, has been as unusual as the stimulus itself. Imagine a governmental Christmas Eve, with wish lists perfected to the tiniest detail: Marion County, S.C., wants 500 extra feet of runway at its municipal airport. Oregon City, Ore., hopes renovations to a rock wall will put 15 stone masons to work.

But there was also an acute sense of anxiety, as state and local officials attempted to navigate the half-formed and byzantine bureaucratic landscape of Stimulus Nation.

The challenge was evident Thursday afternoon at a doctor's office in Seattle, where Dick Thompson, Washington state's stimulus package coordinator, was waiting for his wife to have surgery. At the same time, he was on the phone with aides in the nation's capital and waiting for them to send details of the plan to the doctor's fax machine.

It was too much, he said, to handle on his BlackBerry.

"The bill is 600 pages," said Thompson, a retired former state budget director who has volunteered his services. "Anybody who thinks they can tell you definitively what's going on is conning you."

State officials said Washington could receive up to $4.6 billion from the plan. But the state is facing a budget shortfall of nearly $6 billion over the next two years, and it is unclear how much the money will be able to help -- in part because of restrictions on the use of the federal money.

"We were surprised when the very first House bill came out by how categorical the funds were, coming at us," Thompson said. "So the kind of project competition we had expected -- a fire station, competing with a library in another city, competing with a road project -- simply isn't the case."

Thompson has learned that the state's four most populous counties, in the Seattle area, will be eligible for about $75 million in transportation funding, and that the state will receive millions more for sewer and drinking water projects.

But in the important category of school construction, state officials still have no idea what they will receive.

Though no government entity is sure what will end up under their tree, most are aware they are in competition.

Take Nye County, Nev. It covers 18,000 square miles, making it one of the largest counties in the Lower 48. But it only has about 42,000 residents. County Manager Rick Osborne said he desperately needs money for a new jail, a new administrative building and repairs to a network of beat-up rural roads.

But he can see Nye's share of the stimulus money going instead to nearby Las Vegas, or to Nevada's ailing state government. The concern is so great that a Nye County commissioner flew to Washington recently to lobby for funds.

"I've been in state government for 36 years, and I've learned over time not to be too optimistic," Osborne said. "I don't want to be disappointed. I drink enough scotch as is."

Others are frustrated by the uncertain rules of the game. In Caldwell, Idaho, about 30 miles west of Boise, Canyon County Commissioner Steve Rule is urgently trying to figure out whether the stimulus will provide any money for the county's desperately overcrowded jail.

The county is facing a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of inmates and threats by the county's insurance provider to cut off coverage unless the county takes good-faith steps to build a new jail. Voters rejected funding it with a bond issue.

Now, officials are hoping to put $25 million from the federal stimulus package toward the $48-million facility as a down payment, and go back to voters for the rest.

But so far, the county can't tell whether the stimulus money can be used.

"The answers that we're getting are rather oblique. 'We don't know.' That's the part that's frustrating for us," Rule said.

"We're told to put our name on a list and see what comes out of Washington to the state and see what happens."

Oregon City's biggest wish consists of the realignment of a street and an interchange, which would in turn allow the city to build a mixed-used complex and entertainment center on what is now a closed landfill.

Mayor Alice Norris said the interchange project would create at least 3,000 permanent jobs in Oregon City, a community of about 30,000.

While Oregon City put three items on its wish list, larger cities like Akron, Ohio, have worked up lengthier proposals.

Akron Mayor Donald L. Plusquellic proposed more than 230 projects -- including repairing a crack in one of the city airport's runways ($40,000, no jobs created) and overhauling the infrastructure for an industrial park that would attract corporate tenants ($1 million, 500 jobs created).

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