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What do federal stimulus funds & tumbleweeds have in common?

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POSTED December 12, 2012 1:39 a.m.

Using federal stimulus funds to energize the economy is a bit like using CPR on an elephant 10 days after it died.

It isn’t effective at all.

If you doubt that, just drive down the 120 Bypass and see the jobs that are part of Manteca’s share of the federal stimulus effort that comes out to $10,000 per average American household. Actually, you won’t see them per se but you will see their handiwork providing it is not obscured by tumbleweeds.

Just over $1 million funded two dozen direct jobs for 100 days at best to plant trees, shrubs and do other basic landscaping work along the 120 Bypass and part of the Highway 99 corridor. At least one position was funded in part for perhaps two days every other week during the warmer months to haul in water for three years. Then there is an occasional crew that will clear out weeds perhaps once a month at best but that gig also ends after three years.

Yes, there are secondary impacts in terms of jobs ranging from the nurseries that provided the trees and shrubs to the firms that produced the tree stakes and mulch.

When policy wonks calculate the impact of the $831 billion spent through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 they use models that convert the money spent into jobs created and jobs saved.

There is little doubt there were jobs saved - especially law enforcement and teachers - but the question is how many. There were construction jobs created. And don’t forget direct benefits for the unemployed and others that were included in the package.

The real question: Did the $831 billion that we are going to be paying for years to come as part of the national debt deliver as much bang for the buck as possible to help the recovery and to reinvest in infrastructure? The answer is no. It is the fault of the very machine that Congress and elected state officials helped create - government bureaucracy and regulations.

Manteca, by all standards, did a Herculean job for a city its size in obtaining a fairly big slice of the stimulus pie. Criticize local governments all you want for partaking in the stimulus but you can’t ignore one little fact. Manteca residents are going to be paying for the stimulus’ cost for 30-plus years in federal debt repayment. They have no choice in that matter so they might as well get something to show for it.

Four years after securing the money, Manteca is now changing out all of its street lights to state-of-the-art bulbs that will drastically reduce future municipal costs. That is a fairly effective reinvestment as it reduces the cost of a basic service drastically by shaving monthly PG&E bills to power street lights by 40 percent or more. It wasn’t Manteca’s idea to use the money for energy savings. It was one of the restrictions on a pot of stimulus money.

The stimulus money was funneled into existing programs that had bureaucratic formulas attached to them. One of those was federal transportation dollars. It is mandated that a set amount of every federal dollar spent on highways must go to beautification and landscaping. The money was available and Manteca aggressively went after it. Assuming the trees and shrubs don’t die after the three-year maintenance contract is up because there are no water lines to the landscaping or a plan by the city to ferry water to the trees, it should substantially enhance the corridor. But would it have been more effective for long-term benefit to the economy if $1 million had gone toward a bridge replacement project or building a new highway lane?

Even that isn’t as simple as it may seem. The city just opened the $2.9 million segment of Atherton Drive east of South Main Street. Originally the city had snagged $900,000 in federal stimulus funds.

Manteca, though, couldn’t get the “shovel ready” project going to meet the federal deadline in order to have the money spent. That’s because a state requirement that all new road projects involving state funds or federal money they filter must get an OK from a clearing house in Sacramento that makes sure there are no significant historical structures or archeological sites disturbed or destroyed. That backed up hundreds of projects statewide funded by federal stimulus dollar. Manteca ended up horse trading some of its stimulus money for other funds within the county.

Did the stimulus package help things in the short term? Yes. Did it help a lot of people? Well, not nearly as many as proponents claim. Is the long-term cost worth the price we will end up paying? Ask that question in 20 years after you inspect the 120 Bypass corridor landscaping and check on the economic health of the country paying down an $831 billion debt plus interest.



This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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