Viewpoint: Washington County seeks to use stimulus money wisely, efficientlyWhen the United States Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Feb. 17, commonly known as the federal stimulus bill, the message was clear – get the money out there to the far reaches of the country, do it quickly and get results, primarily in getting people back to work.
By: Myra Peterson, Viewpoint writer, Woodbury Bulletin
When the United States Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Feb. 17, commonly known as the federal stimulus bill, the message was clear – get the money out there to the far reaches of the country, do it quickly and get results, primarily in getting people back to work.
That process that evolved showed the best conduit for the money is state and local governments, and non-profit agencies that serve communities. They already have a working relationship with the federal government, they have programs in place that improve the daily lives of residents, and they have a staff familiar with managing and accounting for government funds.
But those on the local receiving end – or more accurately, the managing end – had their own circumstances to review. How many lottery winners have we all read about who went on spending binges before ending up in the poorhouse, with all the new riches lost? New-found gains require discipline and planning, to be used wisely and effectively.
For that reason, Washington County leaders have taken a very prudent approach to funds it will receive and spend under the stimulus bill. While it may seem like a godsend if someone wins a house in a sweepstakes, it must be kept in mind that a house must be furnished, heated, repaired, insured – and so on. In the same fashion, county leaders have taken a close look at potential stimulus funds. If received, will the programs or employees paid for by the funds commit the county to expenditures long after the funds run out in two years? Officials want to make sure that today’s “house” does not become tomorrow’s financial burden.
The stimulus money has been sent to local communities in two different ways. The first, under which most money has been received up until now by the county, is through “formula” grants. These are to fund programs in which the county already participates. A portion of county funds come from the federal or state governments. Different levels of government are best suited to provide different services. While the federal government does best in providing national defense, a local school board does best delivering education. However, that local school board receives funding from the state and federal governments to do its job.
So, too, does the county government receive funds from the state and federal levels. Because of that, the first round of stimulus funds came through programs the county already had set up, with some federal funding. The stimulus program simply added to those funds. Money the county will receive through those programs are community development funds, to be used to refurbish low-income housing ($196,392); energy conservation funds that will be used to retrofit county buildings to save energy well into the future ($693,000); Workforce Center grants, to help get the area’s workers back on their feet again ($964,161); and a three-year grant to replace a canine unit that was recently cut from the Washington County’s Sheriff’s Department ($39,353). Those funds should soon be working in the county.
The next round of funds are competitive grants. These are grants that require an application, and puts the county in competition for the money with the local units of government throughout the country. County staff members have studied the variety of grants available, and are carefully choosing those grants that will best fit the needs of the county, without burdening it with long-term inappropriate financial commitments. The county board has reviewed each application, and provided its approval. If offered, the board will again review any grant money, before accepting it.
So far, the county has applied for grants to pay for an additional probation officer ($175,000), and to pay for additional deputies to provide court security and patrol services ($1.7 million). The county is joining other metropolitan counties to apply for dollars that will acquire and rehabilitate homes in communities especially hard-hit by foreclosures. Washington County hopes to receive $2.3 million for the program. More applications could be considered in the future.
The county will also work with other agencies and organizations receiving stimulus money. The Minnesota Department of Transportation has a whole host of projects that come under the much touted “shovel ready” criteria, and will work on projects throughout the county, paid for by more than $24 million in stimulus funds. The Washington County Housing and Redevelopment Authority will spend $286,000 upgrading housing it owns in the county.
Each grant application, approval and expenditure has been carefully thought through by county leaders, while keeping in mind that the philosophy of the stimulus package is to get dollars where they are needed as quickly as possible. Washington County is playing its role in tapping into the available stimulus money, to serve the community, gets its residents working again, and invest for the long-term.
To keep residents up-to-date on stimulus expenditures, the county will post and update new information on its Web site at www.co.washington.mn.us.
Myra Peterson is the Chair of the Washington County Board of Commissioners