by Eric WolffThere's something Cannonball Run-esque about the pell-mell race for federal stimulus dollars: Thousands of towns, cities, counties and businesses of all shapes and sizes, all leaning on the gas pedals of power and turning the ignition on applications to win at least a small chunk of the $787-billion cash injection the U.S. government is trying to deliver to the economy. The trouble with races is they have winners and losers, and even though many entities will get some money, when it's all over, will San Diego have taken Burt Reynolds's role—or the one held by the hapless Dom DeLuise?
First, understand the race course. Applicants won't have access to the full $787 billion. Those middle- and lower-income citizens still lucky enough to receive a regular paycheck are even at this very moment enjoying $282 billion in tax cuts. Of the remaining $505 billion, Recovery.gov, the U.S. government's stimulus (and stimulating!) website, says that $400 billion is available through roughly 1,000 grant programs. These grants are being managed by nearly every federal department, from the Housing and Urban Development to the Department of Energy. But that money has to be won by producing lengthy applications, each of which must be sent to the appropriate federal agency and demonstrate how the money will be spent quickly and effectively.
At the city level, the only people capable of writing these applications are experts—housing specialists, electrical engineers, etc.—which means any city department could find itself being asked to complete an application. This massively time-consuming process is being managed in the nation's larger cities by designated members of the bureaucracy variously referred to as “stimulus coordinators” or “stimulus czars.” But these aren't people with dictatorial authority, able to order up applications at their merest whim. Their time mostly has to be spent figuring out which are the most appropriate grants to try for and then whipping the right staff members into doing the work. Kyri McClellan, San Francisco's stimulus maestro, refers to herself as the “lead herder of cats.”
But just as the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the race for stimulus dollars began in Chicago, long before there was an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, or stimulus bill) or, for that matter, even a President Obama.
“We knew there would be a stimulus of some kind,” said Diego Alvarez, deputy mayor for legislative and intergovernmental relations in Los Angeles.
For Alvarez, the lobbying process began almost as soon as Obama won the election. His boss, L.A. mayor and putative gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, worked on Obama's transition team and immediately began applying pressure to make sure the guidelines in a stimulus bill would suit Los Angeles and other big cities. Villaraigosa, joined by San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and other big city mayors, leaned hard on an administration whose election depended heavily on big-city turnout to make sure money went their way.
“That meant emphasizing the formula programs that would best serve Los Angeles and big cities with concentrations of poverty or need for infrastructure,” Alvarez said.
The formulas to which Alvarez refers define the distribution of the roughly $100 billion slated for automatic payment to cities and towns based on population, income and need. San Diego secured $31.7 million in energy block grants, community block grants and other programs.
But after that initial period of intense lobbying, the cooperation among cities began to fade. Even in speaking with CityBeat, some stimulus coordinators held back on details of their applications. Michelle McGurk, a spokesperson for Mayor Chuck Reed of San Jose, said she doesn't “want to tell San Diego or the other cities what we're up to.”
In March, the United States Conference of Mayors invited stimulus coordinators to a meeting in Washington. Before the meeting took place, the coordinators met to swap information and to discuss what information they would need from the next day's presentations. On the day itself, Vice President Joe Biden addressed 100 government officials, and he was followed by a full day of 30-minute presentations from cabinet secretaries and high-level federal officials. But San Diego's herder-of-cats, intergovernmental affairs director Job Nelson, wasn't at the meeting. San Diego employs a Washington lobbyist from the firm of Patten Boggs, and Nelson opted to send a member of the firm instead. Nelson said he'd been to Washington only once, with Sanders. The mayor himself has been only twice this year.
“We're trying to be careful about the amount of travel that we do,” he said. “It's just because of the budget situation of the city. Trips back and forth to D.C. are not inexpensive.”
San Diego had to cut salaries this year to eliminate a $60-million budget deficit in 2010, and it may face a $100-million deficit in 2011.
But San Diego's lobbying efforts pale when compared with those of its fellow cities in California. Both Alvarez and McClellan attended the meeting of stimulus coordinators in March. San Francisco is grappling with a $438-million deficit, but Mayor Gavin Newsom has been to Washington four times since December, and McClellan said city department heads have made their own trips to meet with corresponding federal department heads. McClellan said San Francisco has limited trips taken by officials from departments, like Parks and Recreation, where they feel their chances of getting stimulus money are poor. Villaraigosa, whose city has a $450-million budget gap, has been to Washington five times since December, including a trip on March 9 during which he led a 200-person delegation of government officials and business leaders to meet with top federal officials. When asked about the limitations placed by a tight budget, Alvarez said he doesn't think they had any impact on applying for stimulus money.
Tony Young, who chairs the San Diego City Council's Budget Committee, is worried that San Diego might not get its fair share. When he heard about L.A.'s 200-person junket to Washington, he rang up Sanders. He asked the mayor to find some way to start organizing more people and resources in the region to apply for the federal money. A shared approach to applications would help spread out costs and also demonstrate regional cooperation and, as a result, a broader impact of dollars spent here.
“I don't want to get left out,” Young told CityBeat last month.
Sanders turned to the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. On April 3, the Chamber hosted roughly 50 nonprofits, government officials and businesses from around the county to discuss how the region can join together and apply for stimulus dollars. The meeting was cordial, but since that time, there's been only one other meeting, of a leadership committee, and that meeting focused on loans being offered by the Small Business Administration.
Nelson also said the city and the county of San Diego aren't working together—because, he said, the county is “focused on the unincorporated areas.” County stimulus coordinator Sarah Aghassi said she hasn't done any lobbying in Washington, and neither has anyone from the Board of Supervisors. She said the county is coordinating with the San Diego Association of Governments (as is the city), which is managing transportation dollars for the region, and with the Chamber's efforts.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, McClellan has enough applications in progress that she's ready to shift to a longer-term outlook. And Alvarez, in L.A., has staff writing applications for grants that haven't even been announced yet. Comments or tips? Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.