Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pursed strings — Prospective recipients of stimulus say short-term funds do good in long term

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Immediately after Gov. Sarah Palin announced March 18 that she wouldn’t request nearly a third of the federal stimulus money slated for Alaska — about $288 million of $931 million — because there were strings attached, agencies and organizations that stood to receive funding started pulling strings of their own.

Palin later said the money was still on the table, and that she wanted the Legislature to review proposed stimulus spending to avoid leaving the state with extra costs from programs or jobs created with the two-year money. Lobbying began nearly as soon as Palin’s announcement was made to convince legislators that the money would be put to good use without creating bills that would come due when the federal dollars ran out.

On the Kenai Peninsula, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and Kenai Peninsula Food Bank say a short-term infusion of funding can be spent in a way that provides long-term benefits without recurring costs.

“We’re mostly interested in putting roots into the ground to help us be a stronger district, and not add things,” said Assistant Superintendent Steve Atwater, who will become superintendent at the end of June.

The district has a list of proposed uses for the $5 million it stands to receive in stimulus money. Only one proposal would create a new position — a stimulus funds coordinator who would track implementation of the funding and document compliance with federal regulations on the how the money is spent. But even that job would be advertised and hired as a two-year position that would end when the money does, said Melody Douglas, chief financial officer for the district.

The rest of it would be used for training, upgrading technology and in other ways meant to increase student achievement (see sidebar for list of proposed programs). Essentially, the district would be paying to make teachers better, not paying for new teachers.

“These are things we always talk about and want to do, especially educational assistive technology for preschoolers,” Atwater said.

“It’s not really a Christmas list, it was on our priority list anyway,” he said.
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time, what we really hope is for the infusion to be able to accelerate the plans,” Douglas said.

In the realm of professional development, for example, a one-time infusion of cash can provide lasting dividends because the district can use it to train its own people, who can then train colleagues in the future.

“We can grow our capacity so the trainers have the recourses within the district, so we don’t have to spend ten grand to get trainers in here,” Atwater said.

Douglas said that, in talking to legislators, the concern seems to be that money could be spent frivolously, without much consideration or comprehensive planning. The district supplied the peninsula’s legislative delegation with a specific list of what the money could go toward.

“They were extremely pleased with having received it,” Douglas said. “It was like, ‘OK, this is what we were waiting for.’”

The majority of the education portion of the stimulus money would be funneled through the federal entitlement programs that serve special-needs and low-income students, and there are already a host of rules and guidelines for how that money is used.

“The Department of Education requires us to submit plans to the feds for how we’re going to spend the money,” Atwater said. “… This is not just free cash we can play with as we see fit. We can’t just go buy hot tubs. We have limits on where the money can go.

“This will help our special-needs kids. Anything we can do to help these kids is great,” he said.

Part of the governor’s stated rationale for not requesting all the federal funding is it could balloon budgets and create an expectation that newly created services or programs would continue after the money is gone.

Douglas said that wouldn’t happen at KPBSD, in part because the stimulus money would be a special revenue fund and have nothing to do with the district’s general fund budget. It won’t save the district any money by footing any existing bills, and it won’t create growth within the existing budget.

“These funds can’t be used to supplant general fund money. It cannot be used for anything we already pay for in the general fund,” she said.

But that’s not to say new practices that could come out of the stimulus money would necessarily cease to exist. The district’s budget philosophy every year is to look at where the district is at and where it wants to be, and prioritize spending to do the most good in advancing the district toward its goals, Douglas said.
Projects receiving stimulus funding would be looked at in that same vein, and if they prove to be vital in impacting student achievement, the district may find a way to continue funding them within its own budget.

“There could be some things we could do differently or better with this infusion. Using the budget model we could be in a much better place after this,” Douglas said.

At the food bank, Director Linda Swarner said money would be used to boost the existing emergency food program.

“We would not institute new programs, we would use it for existing programs, just to enhance what we have,” she said. “All of the funds that we get here at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank stays on the peninsula and we help hungry residents from Homer to Moose Pass,” she said.

Money would be used to buy food for the food bank’s member agencies across the peninsula, including senior centers and other meal programs. It could also go to supplement the food boxes given out to residents at the food bank itself.

“It we got a significant amount it would go toward the clients that come in on a monthly basis. First and foremost would go to the 64 member agencies that have feeding programs. They’re all seeing an influx, and we’re seeing an influx in individuals and households coming to inquire about services,” Swarner said.
If the funding amounted to a large sum, it could be used to accomplish projects with one-time costs that the food bank couldn’t otherwise afford, like expanding or upgrading the food warehouse.

Otherwise, stimulus money will be used to do what the food bank always does — feed people.

“I strongly support the Legislature to consider accepting the stimulus money for the food programs,” Swarner said.

Atwater has a similar message for education funding. He and Douglas say the message appears to be well-received.

“It had a life of its own. It was such a shocking thing that the governor would say no to money for education,” Atwater said. “It didn’t take a whole lot of effort to get people upset. We didn’t have to lobby really hard.”

On Friday, the House approved a resolution accepting any money that Gov. Palin does not request from the state’s estimated $930 million share of the federal stimulus package. As of Monday, a similar measure was waiting to be voted on in the Senate, and the House Finance Committee had begun debate on a spending bill that would direct parts of the funding to specific agencies.

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