The feds gave us $1 billion, but we have little to show for it. Why?
The complexity of federal regulations has led to Philadelphia missing out on grants, like one geared toward expanding broadband Internet access in under-served areas. Philadelphia applied for $36 million worth of grants but was declined, according to Porter, because the rules defined an under-served community not by poverty rates, but as one that had little general access, like a rural area without high-speed, fiber-optic wires. Since you can get high-speed Internet access in Philadelphia—though many residents can’t afford it—the application was denied. Thanks to lobbying from cities, including Philadelphia, that definition now includes poverty as a factor. Philly has applied for a second broadband grant of $14.5 million.
Since the stimulus program has so much money to give out, transparency about where the cash is flowing is a top priority for the Obama administration. Applicants are supposed to report back on how they spend the money and tabulate how many jobs are being created. All of that data is supposed to be available for public perusal at Recovery.gov.
But those reporting requirements have created even more difficulties, according to city officials, as the federal agency that issues the grant can have different requirements than the Office of Management and Budgeting, the agency that oversees the entire effort.
“There’s no consistency between agencies and the OMB on requirements for job reporting and there’s confusion about what rules to use on what reports,” Agostini says.
For example, “In the energy-conservation grants, the OMB has one strict way of counting jobs and the Dept. of Energy had a different one, which is challenging,” says Porter.
The federal government doesn’t have a monopoly on bureaucratic problems, though. One of the reasons for Philadelphia’s slow start was that the city didn’t have a recovery officer to coordinate efforts until September 2009, when Agostini was appointed. That was about seven months after the stimulus bill passed Congress.
The city started looking for someone last April, but had trouble filling the spot. One person, who Agostini declined to name, was successfully hired but then resigned after one day on the job. Over the course of the summer two more people were approached for the job, but both declined, leaving Agostini to fill in despite already serving as the city’s budget director.
Prior to that there was a team of people borrowed from other departments who organized the city’s approach to securing and spending stimulus funds. An organized review process didn’t take shape until after Agostini took over as recovery officer, and hired others to help. Before that, departments often applied for grants on their own along with private entities within the city.
“[Back then] we tried to go after every grant imaginable, now we’ve taken a more disciplined approach,” Agostini says. “We make it a point to work with agencies.”
Agostini doesn’t think Philadelphia was unprepared to deal with the stimulus program, at least not any more than the rest of the country. “Everybody was still learning what to do, and that includes the federal government,” he says. If the money has moved slowly in Philadelphia, that’s because a lot of it went directly to the school district and maintaining unemployment benefits.
It is hard to gauge the effect of the stimulus funding in any quick manner, and it’s impossible to say what things would be like without it. The trickle of money coming into Philadelphia, however, feels more like an ineffectual poke than a shot in the arm, especially when so many people are struggling.
“I can understand people feeling that it’s gone slowly, that’s the case in lots and lots of jurisdictions,” Agostini says. Philadelphia is spending more money now, though, and has greatly increased the amount of actual stimulus money spent every quarter. He predicts that trend will continue. “It will get better in the summer months.”
According to the Mayor's Office, the latest stimulus figures are expected to be released soon.