New Hampshire Using Green Paper to Cut Red Tape for Stimulus Projects

Fri July 03, 2009 - Northeast Edition
David Tirrell-Wysocki




CONCORD, N.H. (AP) New Hampshire has been spending federal stimulus money on transportation faster than most states, in part because it’s using green paper to cut red tape.

The U.S. Transportation Department said the state is among the top 10 in the percentage of stimulus money for transportation already put to work.

Overall, more than $145 million has been contracted for everything from transportation to insulating homes and boosting unemployment benefits.

To get there, the state has sped up contract approvals, changed laws and designated a statewide stimulus director, Bud Fitch, who requires every stimulus-funded proposal to be topped with a green cover sheet signifying “Go.’’

“Everyone has been instructed ... grab the green ones, they go to the top. Try to turn them around in a day,’’ instead of the typical several days, Fitch said.

A new state law allows special town and school district meetings to vote on receiving stimulus money. And the governor, Executive Council and lawmakers say they will meet as often as necessary to approve federal contracts.

There’s another reason the state has been able to spend money so quickly on transportation: it had a huge backlog of projects. The state’s 10-year plan for priority transportation work had ballooned to about 30 years-worth of projects before the state slashed it last year.

Then came the financial meltdown and the stimulus law, bringing $129 million to the state for just the kinds of work on the pared-down list, and some on the shelf. Because everything but the funding was ready, the federal money flowed in quickly, though Fitch said he spends much of his time explaining that his office is not full of cash.

“That’s the misconception,’’ Fitch said. “’I’m holding my hand out the window and why hasn’t money dropped into it yet?’’’

He chuckles that while his official title is director, it might as well be “matchmaker.’’

“We are a dating service,’’ he said. “We are trying to match the opportunities of a program with somebody to pursue it.’’

And, as with dating matches, some high hopes have deflated.

“Folks have significantly lowered their expectations,’’ said Maura Carroll, general counsel of New Hampshire’s Local Government Center, which lobbies for cities and towns.

“There was a huge expectation that we were going to see the kind of activity that people have sort of legendary thoughts about in the WPA,’’ Carroll said of the national public works program that employed millions in the 1930s and 40s.

But not everyone expected a financial Prince Charming.

“I didn’t have excessively high expectations that millions of dollars were going to rain down on Hanover,’’ said Town Manager Julia Griffin. “I never saw this as a gravy train in terms of ’Oh, goody. We are going to be able to do all sorts of projects we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.’ I don’t think a lot of my colleagues saw it that way.’’

In May, the state Transportation Department announced $29 million for local transportation projects, great news for those communities, Carroll said, but frustrating because cities and towns have about $2 billion in work that could benefit.

“When times are tough, it’s the capital projects that get put on hold,’’ she said. “You don’t start a new project. You don’t pave a road. You don’t repair a bridge.’’

Carroll complimented state Transportation Commissioner George Campbell for making sure communities got stimulus money, saying some states are using it only for state projects.

The Transportation Department’s stimulus coordinator, Bill Janelle, said stimulus money has gone to some state projects that would have started anyway, with borrowed money. Others have started earlier, and work such as paving and bridge repair has increased. The state had planned to repave 250 mi. of highway this year. It added 500 more.

The airport access road in Manchester and Bedford now is a year ahead of schedule and some local projects in line for future years will be completed sooner, allowing others not eligible for stimulus money to move higher on the list for other funding.

Getting the stimulus money takes some work.

Fitch carries a blue looseleaf containing the 400-page law. He said there probably are 4,000 more pages with rules and regulations. A single sentence might apply to hundreds of millions of dollars, and take hours of research to decipher.

’’I pity the poor community that doesn’t have a fair number of full time-staff who can track all of this,’’ Griffin said.