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Southern California officials draw up wish lists for federal stimulus money

Billions of dollars are sought for highway improvement and airport expansion projects, among others, to help jump-start the local economy. It is unclear how many jobs could be created.

January 14, 2009|Garrett Therolf and Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Los Angeles County supervisors urgently scrimmaged for federal stimulus money Tuesday, proposing $2.7 billion in projects they say would help jump-start the local economy.

The push by the county to get a share of the more than $800-billion stimulus package that President-elect Barack Obama has asked Congress to approve came as concern mounts about potentially massive losses in state funding.

County officials are particularly worried about an expected shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars for social services at a time when such programs are strapped by the rising demands of the unemployed and underemployed.

Los Angeles County's wish list will be in competition with hundreds, if not thousands, of others being drawn up around the nation.

In Orange County, officials have compiled $2.2 billion in projects, including $335 million for the expansion of John Wayne Airport. San Bernardino County officials said they have about $1.4 billion in highway projects in mind, but would not draft a list until they have eligibility requirements. Riverside County officials have said they will ask for at least $154 million, mostly for transportation projects.

Los Angeles County officials are proposing projects that include more than $25 million to create renewable solar energy sources for county operations, $8 million to computerize some medical records at county health facilities and $186 million to pave roads.

County officials also hope to benefit "disproportionately" from billions of dollars in additional funding for food stamps, Medi-Cal and other entitlement programs that federal lawmakers hope will bring relief to the unemployed.

The county's chief executive, William T. Fujioka, said it was crucial that the county be in a position to take advantage of a stimulus plan that he said "will be unprecedented at least in our lifetimes."

But optimism was greatly tempered by the seemingly unrelenting sour news from the state Capitol.

Based on an analysis of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest proposed budget, county officials said this week that the county would lose about $350 million over the next 18 months.

Concern was heightened Tuesday about additional cuts when supervisors obtained a copy of legislation the governor submitted late last week that, if approved, would defer an additional $6.54 billion statewide beginning in February, with more than $1.7 billion of that coming out of funds for health and human services.

Because some of the state cuts may be retroactive, county officials already are scrambling to plug holes in their $21-billion annual operating budget.

"The elephant in the room that we're not talking about is the unstimulus package, which is the lack of a state budget," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who expressed concern that the possibility of a federal stimulus package was being viewed by state lawmakers "as a way to absolve themselves of the tough decisions."

"The jeopardy we face because of a lack of a state budget is far greater than the benefit we get out of the stimulus," he said.

Yaroslavsky cited the loss of 150 jobs when work was stopped on a performing arts center at Cal State Northridge as one example of the impact of the state's suspension of capital projects.

Still, it was not immediately clear how many jobs might be created by projects for which the county is seeking federal funds.

Obama has pledged to create 4 million jobs, and lawmakers appear eager to make good on that pledge amid growing skepticism over the effectiveness of President Bush's $350-billion bailout for financial firms last year.

Supervisor Gloria Molina, who pushed county officials to draft the list of eligible projects, said staffers would soon calculate the number of jobs that would be created by each item.

But some on the list do not appear to meet Obama's focus on projects ready to go in order to jump-start the economy within two years.

For example, $290 million is proposed for the refurbishment and retrofit needed to reopen inpatient services at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Medical Center, even though the project requires nearly a year of architectural work before construction and the county has yet to find a willing operator.

Richard Little, director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at USC, said the push to act quickly would inevitably fund some projects that might not survive more thorough deliberations.

Little said that after the initial round of funding, he believed more thought and evaluation should come into play in determining worthy projects.

"But first thing, you need to get the money flowing, get your contractors working," he said. "You need to prime the pump."

To some extent, county lobbying will have a limited effect.

Congress has signaled that it will base funding on existing formulas for most expenditures, but a sizable minority of projects would be selected according to senior officials' discretion.

For this reason, all five county supervisors said they would personally visit Washington lawmakers to press the case for pet projects.

"It can feel like a free-for-all. The line you always get is things are moving rapidly but we don't know what the rules are going to be eventually," said Supervisor Don Knabe.

He returned Monday from Washington, where he lobbied the Army Corps of Engineers for $6 million to dredge off the coast of Marina del Rey, a project on the stimulus wish list.

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Times researcher Kent Coloma and staff writers Jordan Rau and Tami Abdollah contributed to this report.

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