State

Modesto-area schools, cities and nonprofits gain from federal stimulus

The federal government's $787 billion stimulus package has pumped more than $180 million into the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Recently released figures -- available on recovery.gov -- shed more light on how that money is being spent.

Schools, counties, cities and nonprofits have benefited. The money will dig new wells in Ceres, keep Modesto police officers on the street, pave roads in Atwater and buy a patrol car for the Livingston Police Department.

Critics say the stimulus package has done little to shore up the economy. The national unemployment rate reached 10.2 percent in October; Stanislaus County's was at 16.6 percent.

But local officials point to specific instances where they say the money has meant the difference between keeping workers on the payroll or sending them to the unemployment office.

Some say it's too soon to tell what impact the money will have. In many cases, the money hasn't arrived yet. Only about 22 percent of the entire stimulus has been spent, according to ProPublica.org, a nonprofit that produces investigative journalism. Cities will have to "bill" the government after they complete a stimulus-funded project. Some will be spending stimulus money for the next few years.

"It ain't real money yet," warned Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour. "The money doesn't come till you get the project done."

But Ridenour said stimulus money already has helped Modesto. Stimulus dollars rehired eight Modesto police officers laid off earlier this year. The city will use stimulus money to hire at least four other officers.

Modesto also is using $3.2 million in stimulus funds to resurface 25 miles of city roads, among other projects. Work on the roads isn't expected to start until spring.

Others say stimulus dollars create only short-term jobs and won't do much more.

"Only business creates jobs, government doesn't create jobs," said Bill Bassitt, chief executive officer of the Stanislaus County Economic Development and Workforce Alliance.

Bassitt believes cutting taxes for businesses would create more jobs than government grants. The alliance used stimulus dollars to pay for summer jobs for 942 young people this summer. "I'm not saying that's not good," Bassitt said. "But they're not permanent jobs."

Bassitt worries that the long-term impact of the stimulus package will be debt, not jobs. "I don't see it resulting in what were the promised permanent jobs," he said. "What I see is a much more permanent situation of taxpayers trying to pay off the debt."

But others say even temporary jobs will ripple through the economy and provide a much-needed boost. Jeff Rowe, director of Alliance Worknet, a sister organization to the Workforce Alliance, said his organization will use stimulus money to give 141 low-income people six-month paid internships at local businesses.

The Associated Press reported last month that the White House has overstated the number of jobs created or saved by the stimulus package.

"What doesn't get reported are the jobs that get created as this money works its way through the economy," Rowe said. "There is a multiplier effect. It's not just the jobs that are created for those particular individuals, but as that money gets turned over in the local economy, there's jobs in grocery stores, restaurants, theaters that hopefully are preserved, or even created."

Likewise, Modesto Transit Manager Fred Cavanah said stimulus money saved 10 city bus driver jobs that "absolutely" would have been cut otherwise. But the positions won't show up in government tallies of stimulus-created jobs, because they weren't directly paid for with stimulus dollars, Cavanah said.

Schools are among the biggest winners. The Modesto City Schools District took in more than $23 million, while the Stanislaus County Office of Education has received at least $18 million. It's supervising a program that will help some Head Start workers get college degrees.

"It's making a big difference for us," said Deborah Clipper, executive director of SCOE's Child Family Services Division. "One thing I've always believed in is that when you provide education for people, that stays with them for the rest of their life. There's nothing that's more of a precursor to economic success than education."

Some say the stimulus program's effectiveness is hindered by too many rules on how the money can be spent.

Haven Women's Center in Modesto got about $55,000 in stimulus funds. But Haven was given only two months to spend the money, and the organization couldn't choose how it allocates the funds, executive director Belinda Rolicheck said.

Given a choice, Rolicheck said she would have used stimulus funds to hire someone. Haven has lost about a quarter of its staff over the past two years. Instead, it spent stimulus money on translating outreach materials into Spanish and other one-time costs.

"We didn't feel like we were able to do the things we would have liked to have done," Rolicheck said. "We almost got to the point where we wanted to tell them to stop helping us because it was so restrictive."

The short turnaround on some stimulus funds meant officials had to choose projects that were ready to go, not necessarily highest priority. In Modesto, officials couldn't use stimulus money to rebuild the Pelandale Avenue interchange on Highway 99, because the project needed lengthy environmental studies, said Patrick Brooke, a city IT analyst who's been tracking the stimulus funds Modesto's received.

Brooke created a Web site and e-mail address to answer residents' questions about the stimulus.

"We want them to know how (the money) is being used," Brooke said. "We believe it's their tax money and it should be spent properly, and it should be spent to benefit the community. We want them to know that we're doing everything we can to do that."

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at lalbrecht@modbee.com or 578-2378. Follow her at Twitter.com/BeeReporter.

Related stories from Merced Sun-Star

  Comments