Florida’s federal stimulus cash caught up in red tape

(MIAMI HERALD)   Ask Miami-Dade officials to point out someone locally who has a chunk of the $787 billion federal stimulus package in their pocket, ready to spend, and they’ll introduce you to 19-year-old Tiffany Barkley.

As a $10-per-hour summer intern filing photos of the dead at the county medical examiner’s office, there’s not much chance she can revive the ailing economy with her modest paycheck.

So goes the bailout in South Florida. With roughly a third of the stimulus money allocated nationwide, Florida residents are in line to get less, per capita, than people living in any other state.

And precious little of that has landed in paychecks or cash registers yet. A maze of governmental red tape is slowing the flow of money.

“There seems to just be a general malaise in getting the money out,” said Steve Hamill, general manager of U.S. Communities, a nonprofit government purchasing cooperative created by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

President Barack Obama promised large chunks of the money would go to “shovel-ready projects.” The idea was to quickly prime the pump of the nation’s economy while upgrading long-neglected infrastructure and creating new jobs.

Hamill said only about 10 percent of the stimulus cash has arrived in state and local government coffers, let alone reached the final recipients.

“It’s a struggle right now just getting the funding down to where it needs to be spent. It seems we have a logjam or a bottleneck,” he said.

That’s the classic challenge with government-centered stimulus programs: getting the money spent before the economy rebounds on its own. By contrast, when the money goes directly to consumers, it reaches cash registers quickly.

For example: On Monday the Department of Transportation launched the “cash for clunkers” program, which provides rebates to people who upgrade to more fuel efficient cars. The program sparked so many car sales that it burned through its billion-dollar budget by Thursday night, forcing the Obama administration to find more money to keep it going.

Of the total stimulus package, $499 billion will be dedicated to the types of projects funneled through state and local governments. The rest is allocated for tax relief.

With $297 billion of the spending announced as of Friday, Florida was set to receive about $11.2 billion, or about $610 per person, ranking last among all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and all U.S. territories.

Sparsely populated states like Alaska and North Dakota will each bring in more than twice as much per resident, according to data published last month on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act website.

The disparity comes as Florida’s unemployment rate is 10.7 percent, higher than nearly 30 other states, according to federal numbers released in July. And the state has a higher percentage of people using food stamps than 24 other states.

Liz Oxhorn, a White House spokeswoman on the Recovery Act, cautioned that it is too early to compare states.

“The ranking for Florida changes literally every week,” Oxhorn said. “We’re five months into a two-year process. . . . There won’t really be a sense of who is the winner and who is the loser until we push all of the money out the door.”

Florida stimulus czar Don Winstead said that in some cases the money is allocated based on existing federal funding formulas that have traditionally put Florida at a disadvantage because they do not take recent growth into account.

And he added that looking at the per-person breakdown is not always the best way to analyze the stimulus money.

For example, Florida’s large elderly population skews efforts to look at per capita education money. Florida did well under a stimulus education funding formula that relied heavily on the size of the state’s school-age population, Winstead said.

“Overall, if you look at the big funding pots, particularly Medicaid and education, I think we did very well,” said Winstead, a special advisor to Gov. Charlie Crist.

Florida ranks 31st in health and human services spending, 43rd in education and 49th in transportation money, according to the federal data.

Some South Florida projects are already off the ground.

Broward County secured $11.4 million, including roughly $5.7 million to replace the worn out concrete surrounding several terminals at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. That work got under way last month.

But hundreds of millions in promised aid is still winding its way to South Florida through the maze of new regulations.

So far, summer interns are all Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami have to show for the biggest economic stimulus program in U.S. history.

For Barkley, a Miami Dade College student who has dreamed of becoming a funeral director since childhood, the month in the medical examiner’s office has been paradise. “For a dead body community, everybody is just wonderful,” she said. “My mom says I’ve been acting like a kid in a candy store.”

But even the small boost South Florida’s economy would enjoy from her paycheck will have to wait. She’s saving the money for school.

The rest of the hoped-for money — the county has applied for $247 million and the city for $27 million — remains locked in varying degrees of bureaucratic limbo.

More than $87 million earmarked for the massive highway project at the Dolphin/Palmetto interchange — the largest stimulus-funded project in Florida — probably won’t start landing in construction workers’ paychecks until next year. The massive contracts don’t go out to bid until the end of this month.

And $8 million promised to repave a runway at Miami International Airport was yanked back by the Federal Aviation Administration.

MIA Director Jose Abreu said the airport lost the grant because bids for the repaving work came in “too low,” so FAA officials determined the project could be covered by existing money and the stimulus cash could be spent elsewhere.

“I thought they were gonna give me a trophy or something for saving money,” said an exasperated Abreu last week after hearing about the FAA’s decision, “but that’s not what happened.”

Even a relatively modest $2 million plan to reimburse farmers who buy new, environmentally friendly motors to power irrigation systems faces hurdles.

“We haven’t fully kicked off the grant program yet,” said county Agriculture Department Director Charles LaPradd. “Technically, as of today, we don’t have the money. Hopefully it will be here by the end of August.”

To qualify for reimbursement from the Environmental Protection Agency, which has agreed to cover up to 65 percent of the cost of a new motor ranging from $5,000 to $10,000, farmers will have to show county officials their old, environmentally unfriendly motor with a hole drilled through the engine block, LaPradd said.

And there will have to be procedures to make sure the money gets spread evenly, so one big farmer doesn’t replace 30 motors before his smaller neighbor gets a chance to replace one.

“It’ll be a little slower than everybody thought,” said LaPradd, who applied for the grant after spotting some obscure language buried in the fine print of the Recovery Act.

Things aren’t moving any faster in Miami.

“I think, probably, most people anticipated that it would have worked much more quickly,” said Maria Bell, special assistant to Mayor Manny Diaz. “But it’s a new administration, you have new secretaries, some new deputies are still being confirmed. It’s almost like the perfect storm.”

None of the stimulus money Miami applied for has hit the street yet, Bell said. Last week the city got the go-ahead to put out to bid $2.2 million in stimulus-funded road and sidewalk paving jobs. The work should begin promptly after the 30-day bidding period, she said.

“The process just didn’t exist,” to distribute the money when the stimulus plan was announced in February, Bell said. “I hope by the end of the year we’ll start to see a big improvement.”

Miami police got word last week they will receive $11 million through a stimulus grant to hire 100 new officers, but department leaders have no idea when those new cops might hit the street. “I don’t think that we’ve figured out how it’s going to work yet,” said Cmdr. Delrish Moss, a department spokesman.

Broward County has submitted, or is in the process of submitting, requests for more than $124.9 million through various competitive grant programs.

Replacing the 20-year-old concrete at the airport terminal is one tangible result. Without the stimulus funds, airport officials would have needed to find another way to pay for the project, said Fort Lauderdale airport spokesman Greg Meyer.

Pembroke Pines is requesting $400,000 for a new fire truck and roughly $156,000 for a portable traffic ticket writing program as part of a $5.6 million wish list.

“If 50, 80 or 100 or 1,000 cities buy trucks, that’s a lot of jobs,” Commissioner Angelo Castillo said. “You can’t say `Well, one truck in Pembroke Pines saves jobs.’ But there are cities throughout the country that are in a recession.”

Hollywood has been awarded about $14.6 million in grants and loans, and has about $209.5 million worth of grant applications pending.

Proposed projects include a new fire rescue and beach safety complex and new solar and wind technology at four city facilities.

The fire rescue complex is ready to go, said Lorie Mertens-Black, Hollywood’s director of intergovernmental affairs. But because of application and documentation requirements, the city hasn’t had a chance to start using much of the money.

“Have we spent any of it? I’m looking at the list, and I don’t think so,” she said early last week. “I don’t think it’s ever as easy as `OK, here’s a check, go spend it tomorrow.’ I just don’t think government works that way.”

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