Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Stimulus Money Short Changes Memphis

Memphis got screwed again, and the culprit was a familiar one – state government.

Back when the promises were made that the economic stimulus spigots would be turned on in Washington, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton joined the chorus of mayors who were concerned that cities would be short-changed. He was right: highway funding funneled through state government was spent mostly in rural areas.

In other words, the Bredesen Administration, in the appropriation of funds for roads and transportation, shafted Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga. Road funding is only one part of the stimulus package, but Memphis and Shelby County Governments should take it as a warning shot for stepped up lobbying and action.

No Stimulus For Efficiency

Unfortunately, the management of the economic stimulus program here appears to have little structure and even less accountability. While other cities have set up websites tracking every dollar that comes into them, it seems that here there’s no central tracking process or anyone who can tell us how much money has come into our community.

Unless something changes, we run the risk of national embarrassment for an abject failure in meeting the key principles of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) – transparency and accountability.

Some public agencies treat ARRA as “found” money, but they do it at their peril. While this is a historic level of funding, it will be accompanied by a historic level of investigation.

If the federal government’s inspector generals are serious now about the spending of grant funds, they are going to be absolutely obsessive about stimulus money. That means that the absence of a clearinghouse in local government where every dollar is reported, where compliance is ensured and where every dollar is accounted for is a serious risk for us.

More Of The Same

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the stimulus funding has not been the stimulus for new thinking and strategic investments that it could have been. In so many places, including our own, the exercise has been to spend quickly, not spend wisely, and because of it, the potential impact of ARRA has been blunted.

Most are heavy on public works projects and light on public sense. It should be little surprise, because when the federal government uses terms like “shovel-ready projects,” you’re really asking for the usual suspects to ask for money for the usual projects – more and more public works projects.

At a time when the federal funds should be incentives for investing in the new economy, it’s likely that much of it will be spent chasing the old oil-dependent economy and rewarding growth patterns that have hollowed out our cities.

In other words, this would be the perfect time to invest in a green infrastructure, bike lanes and a technological grid that speaks to the realities of the future. After all, it shouldn’t be enough that the federal is aimed at putting people to work. More to the point, it needs to be about creating the platform for the essential infrastructure for cities competing in a knowledge-based economy of the future.

Getting The Question Right

In other words, most governments have treated the stimulus funding as a way to transfer the cost of projects already in the pipeline from their government to the federal government, so the emphasis is on spending money as fast as possible.

Rather than ask, “How do we spend money as quickly as possible,” cities should be asking, “How do we reinvent the American infrastructure because this one is too expensive, too unsustainable and too uncompetitive?”

Of course, we’ve compounded these problems here by our obsession with paying people to love us in the form of tax freezes, by our lack of vision about workforce improvement and by our missed opportunities to build an economy on quality rather than cheapness.

Bad Math

But back to our main topic.

According to an analysis by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, cities have received a disproportionately smaller piece of the highway improvements funds. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels charged that in its haste to jump start the economy, the federal government relied on an old formula that left behind our metro areas.

In analyzing the $18.3 billion set aside for transportation, the mayors’ report said that the 85 largest cities in the U.S. received 48% of the money although they hold 73% of the nation’s GNP and 63% of its people.

This is especially troubling to Memphis because of our place as a national logistics leader, and with our luck, the stimulus money will probably be used to complete I-269 with its disastrous effects on our city.

Nashville Wins…Again

The U.S. Conference on Mayors’ report tracked the spending of the Federal Highway Administration’s share of the stimulus package and found that in the about $450 million spent in Tennessee, Memphis has received $19.4 million in approved projects. Knoxville got $12.7 million in projects.

That compares to the $57.8 million spent by the administration of Governor Phil Bredesen for projects in the city he once served as mayor. In other words, Nashville got almost three times more money invested in it than Memphis.

But that’s not the worst of it. The rest of the state, largely rural areas, received $376.5 million in projects.

Or put another way, Memphis got 4.2%, Knoxville got 2.7% and Nashville/Murfreesboro got 12.4%. Unbelievably, the rest of the state got 80.7% of the total project funds.

Getting Serious

By the way, Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville produce 66.9% of the GSP (gross state product). And the rest of the state? While getting 80.7% of the total project money, they produce 33% of the state’s economy.

White House spokesmen said that the fairness of ARRA should not be based on the road and transportation share of its program. That is of course true, but after the hosing we have taken from the state, we think we can be forgiven for our reluctance to accept that assurance at face value.

The truth is that we should be used to this sort of treatment from state government, but with so much at stake with this stimulus funding, all of our elected officials need to set aside race, political parties and geography to send a strong message to Nashville that we will not accept any repetition of this unfair disbursement of crucial funding.


Zippy the giver said...

I whole heartedly agree with this post, it's simple.
The incumbents who want to be perceived as helping will use the money to fund their old guard projects and people to "look good" but nothing new is going to come from them.
Efficiency breeds transparency and if we had those two things I suspect a LOT of incumbents would be hanged at the town square, no kidding, it's that bad.

This also points to the target on Memphis' back by state AND federal gov. Bulldozers, remember?

I wouldn't bother hesitating reporting any graft to the federal government, it should be reported to the agency in charge the inspector general, if they are truly up to the task, something will be done, if not, you have no hope anyway, unless your local private industry of venture capitalists decides to create a pool of money available for startups of the nature of sustainable Memphis.
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

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