Stimulus spending data from US 'clear as mud'

Star review looks at validity of local numbers, job figures
2009-11-29T00:00:00Z Stimulus spending data from US 'clear as mud' Rhonda Bodfield and Tim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Arizona is 17th in the nation for the number of jobs created or retained under President Obama's $787 billion stimulus package, the first report on how the money was spent says.

Spending on nonprofits, schools, universities and state agencies cut a wide swath, according to a database detailing the period from when the bill was signed in February until the end of September. Vice President Joe Biden boasted earlier this month at a Phoenix fundraiser that only a dozen states have had more money obligated than Arizona under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Some $50,000 went to support 34 dancers in a production of "Swan Lake," which was performed in early November by Ballet Arizona. A private company received $250,000 to install eight prefabricated concrete restroom buildings in the Coronado National Forest. University researchers received $450,000 to study turtle ants to shed light on the evolution of division of labor.

An Arizona Daily Star review of the federal database raises questions about the validity of some of the numbers in the database and whether the expenditures are meeting the stated purpose of jump-starting employment.

Among the Star's findings:

• The locally funded project that appears to have saved the most jobs actually supported work in California, and they likely would have been preserved anyway (see story this page).

• Millions of federal dollars that would likely have gone to recipients anyway was reclassified as stimulus spending, allowing officials to count existing jobs. That happened with University of Arizona research projects without direct job creation, for example, that might have been funded under other grant programs.

• Hundreds of thousands of stimulus dollars went to give current employees, particularly in the Head Start program, a raise.

• The database itself contains numerous errors, starting with listing job projects in phantom congressional districts. In other cases, several projects reported jobs, even though their projects haven't gotten off the ground and they aren't supposed to report prospective jobs.

The Arizona Department of Veterans Services, for example, reports 162 construction jobs to build a new state veterans home in Tucson, but it isn't expected to break ground until February. And although the database lists a nearly $1 million project for historic lighting fixtures in Phoenix, state officials have said that's a mistake.

• Just as jobs were overstated, there is a case to be made that they might also be understated. Subcontractors don't have to report their jobs. Part-time work doesn't count. Prospective jobs aren't supposed to be listed. And there's no way to determine the "re-spending" effect that happens when a construction worker who now has work on a highway project, for example, spends part of a paycheck for lunch at a local restaurant or starts up a gym membership.

Jobs are just a part of the overall stimulus package.

There's nearly $300 billion in tax cuts and benefits for families. There's more than $220 billion for key services such as education, health care and an extension of unemployment benefits.

But a big chunk of the debate has centered on the $275 billion - including roughly $800 million in funds for Arizona - that's been made available for federal contracts, grants and loans. In large part, that's because when the president signed the law, the national unemployment rate was at 8.1 percent. It has since climbed to more than 10 percent, opening the door for critics who say it isn't working and leaving Congress scrambling to consider a new jobs package.

Pat Dolan does not count herself among the 58 percent of Americans who said in a recent Rasmussen Reports poll that the stimulus plan is hurting the nation or hasn't had any impact.

She's convinced she'd be out scouting for a job now had the federal government not written a $25,000 check to The Drawing Studio, which is using the money to pay her to coordinate art programs for seniors for 20 hours a week.

Dolan's half-time position, combined with another half-time youth program director, are among the 12,283 jobs reportedly created or saved in the state.

"I would say the stimulus package allowed me to continue doing what I love to do," said Dolan, 61, whose program served 444 seniors last year.

But critics say the law has not met its stated purpose.

"It's fair to say the bill has been helpful in terms of reducing the impact on states like Arizona that were in a terrible fiscal situation," said Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. "Where the area has fallen short - and probably woefully short - is in stimulating private sector jobs."

The money would have been better spent by making permanent cuts to the research and development tax credit, said Hamer, calling the retained or saved jobs number "fictitious" and criticizing the errors in the database.

The list, for example, includes a $940,000 grant for streetlight renovation in Phoenix, which consists of repairing 1920s-era metal poles that have been damaged over the years in a handful of historic districts.

The Phoenix project manager, Gail Brinkmann, said the funding really didn't belong on the list because her project didn't get approved for funding after all, although it would have qualified. "It would certainly keep someone really busy," she said, noting it would increase home values by adding to the character of neighborhoods. And, she said, it's more green to reuse something old.

Tim Tate, a spokesman for the state Transportation Department, said the issue has been raised with the federal government, but it hasn't been addressed. "Just because it's on the list doesn't mean it's being funded. I'm sorry if that's clear as mud," Tate said.

Work is being done to address various reporting mistakes, said Cheryl Arvidson, the assistant Director of Communications for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. But, she said, the media focus on the shortcomings has drowned out an important detail: At least there's a Web site that provides details on 130,000 different recipients.

"This is an absolutely unprecedented exercise," Arvidson said, noting that the federal government is committed to deeper accountability. "We're in unchartered territory, there's no question about it, but by putting a spotlight on the whole reporting process, you are setting new standards of government transparency."

Maybe so, but Trent Humphries, one of the organizers of the fiscally conservative Tucson Tea Party, said activists have been frustrated using the federal stimulus Web site, which allows users to find their city, pinpoint a number on a map and click on it for more detail about the project. He couldn't care less about the exact address the money is going to, he said, but he'd like a full description in every case about how the money is being spent. "If I were going to build a Web site to slow down information gathering, it would look exactly like this one," he said.

Humphries said he was curious, for example, what Dark Horse Media is doing with a nearly $100,000 grant.

It draws attention because it's a private sector firm listed among hundreds of charter and public schools and higher learning institutions that qualified for $557 million in stabilization funding designed to help backfill state budget cuts. It says it's for "advertising."

Finding more detail is not an easy exercise.

Dark Horse Media did not return inquiries to their office by phone or e-mail.

The federal office has been clear it can't help with the drilling-down process.

The state Department of Education directed reporters to the governor's office. The governor's office sent inquiries to the University of Arizona.

Jim Florian, the UA's budget director, said he didn't have that level of detail, although he could get it if given more time. But he couldn't say for sure that that contract - whatever it was for - would have definitely gone away without the stimulus funds.

Most of the dollars went to salaries, he said, although some of the money was for operational uses. "But it's not like we cut this because of state cutbacks and then the stimulus gave us money and we brought it back."

The 672 UA jobs salvaged or created by stabilization funding, he said, is based on a formula, calculating average salaries. "We didn't count 672 heads," he said, so the UA can't point to a person and say that his or her job was saved by the federal infusion.

In other words, it's a measurement of money per person, but not necessarily a precise calculation of jobs saved.

Tasya Peterson, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Office of Economic Recovery, said her office is comfortable standing by the 9,700 jobs attributable to money that was funneled through state departments. Still, Peterson won't go out on a limb to defend projects involving direct infusion from the feds to cities, towns and nonprofits.

"The way that the guidance came down for calculating jobs, I just don't think it was the same across the board. Some people just counted jobs. Some used a formula. There were eight different ways to calculate jobs and everyone received different guidance," Peterson said. "I really can't say if those overall numbers are accurate."

Some of the money went to equipment. The UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory didn't ask for stimulus money, but it ended up with $500,000 for a new electron microprobe. That grant, awarded by the National Science Foundation, will cover half the cost of a new high-tech imaging machine, said Michael Drake, head of the Department of Planetary Sciences.

The new machine, which conducts chemical analysis and specialized imaging, will supplement the existing one, said Ken Domanik, who runs the microprobe lab. The existing, 18-year-old microprobe is temperamental. Last week, Domanik and others spent days coaxing the machine back into operation after it was shut down during a renovation of the lab.

The university charges between $10 and $15 per hour (for UA users) and $200 per hour (for commercial users) to occupy the microprobe. Local mining companies, in particular, occasionally rent it, Drake said.

The county's Adult Probation Department was approved to purchase a sports utility vehicle to reach rural areas, along with funding that secured the jobs of eight people. That was a blessing, said Chief Probation Officer David Sanders, given that April layoffs cost 22 people their jobs.

Equipment is a worthy expenditure, Sanders said. Someone sold a car, after all, and probation officers need to be out in the community, visiting probationers. Plus, he said, money spent on probation generally is a good deal, since it's far more cost- effective than committing more people to prison.

The next report is coming in January and will detail spending from October to December.

On StarNet: Find a searchable database of the Arizona stimulus projects at azstarnet.com/ special/stimulus

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at rbodfield@azstarnet.com or 573-4243. Contact reporter Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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