Cities, State Agencies Battle for Mass. Stimulus Cash

Fri February 27, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Steve LeBlanc - Associated Press



BOSTON (AP) Like cities and towns across Massachusetts, Newton has big ideas about how to spend all those federal stimulus dollars.

A month before President Obama signed the $787 billion spending bill into law on Feb. 17, Newton submitted a wish list of 66 projects totaling more than $103 million to state officials, from replacing sewers to dredging the lagoon around City Hall.

A month later, none the projects has been deemed “shovel ready’’ by the state — at least not yet.

Newton isn’t alone.

Mayors and town managers are watching anxiously to see how many of the approximately 4,500 local projects they submitted will win the all-important “shovel ready’’ label — a critical first step on the long road to getting a chunk of the state’s share of federal stimulus funds.

Newton Mayor David Cohen said when the state initially asked communities to submit their requests, the final rules governing which projects would be selected hadn’t been set, so he cast a wide net.

“There was every reason to include all of the meritorious projects that could be funded,’’ Cohen said. “We were looking for projects that had the support of the citizens of Newton.’’

Other Massachusetts communities submitted equally ambitious wish lists.

Melrose submitted nine projects, totaling $28 million. Framingham hoped for $367 million for 68 local projects. New Bedford wanted $397 million for more than 70 projects.

And Springfield asked for $1.15 billion for 225 local initiatives, from the redevelopment of the site of a former jail to a zoo renovation effort.

The fate of all the projects is in limbo after the state released two lists recently.

One is a list of projects already designated “shovel ready’’ — or projects which could begin construction within 180 days. Those include hundreds of projects submitted through state agencies from highway repairs to upgrades at state colleges and renewable energy projects.

The second, much longer list, consists of projects yet to be reviewed by the state — the bulk of them submitted by cities and towns.

State officials say the projects on the “shovel ready’’ list are no more likely to end up receiving federal stimulus dollars than projects that still must be reviewed.

Ensuring there is a balance between state projects and local projects is key to the success of the stimulus plan’s main goal — helping revive the economy by putting people back to work, according to Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

“There is a lot of work to do in the coming days to make sure every community and every state agency knows that the process is going to be fair,’’ he said. “There will need to be balance.’’

Agreeing how to divvy up the money is thorny because only a small fraction of the projects will end up receiving any stimulus funds.

Gov. Deval Patrick recently named developer Jeffrey Simon to be the state’s “stimulus czar.’’ It will be up to Simon to whittle down the shovel-ready list to match the actual federal dollars Massachusetts is expected to receive.

“For every one [project] you can do, there will be 20 that you can’t,’’ Simon said moments after Patrick announced his appointment.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Deval Patrick said Feb. 17 the administration has been working with cities and towns since December to come up with a preliminary list of projects based “`on how quickly shovels can go in the ground, infrastructure needs, regional equity issues and other criteria.’’

The administration “will continue to work with our partners in local government to identify projects that put people to work immediately and have long-term economic value,’’ said Patrick aide Kimberly Haberlin.

The wrangling over the stimulus dollars ramped up Feb. 17 even as President Obama signed the massive bill into law.

The governor said the state could get $1-$2 billion for such projects.

In a report sent out before the signing ceremony in Denver, the Obama administration estimated the economic stimulus plan would create or save 79,000 jobs in Massachusetts during the next two years — part of an estimated 3.5 million jobs created or saved nationally.