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Sizing up the stimulus package for cities and towns

The federal stimulus bill is a year old this week. Economists and politicians disagree on how successful it's been at reviving the economy. So far only about a third of the $787 billion in the stimulus bill have actually been paid out. The City of Charlotte has received about $40 million dollars in direct stimulus funds. WFAE's Julie Rose takes a look at what the stimulus bill has done for smaller cities and towns in the region. February 2009. The mayor of Matthews at the time, Lee Myers, is talking about the federal stimulus package just being signed in Washington. And he's trying really hard to sound calm. But it's obvious, he's salivating. "The opportunity for federal dollars flowing to local governments has never been greater in the last 25 years," says Myers. "So there's gonna be a lot of competition for those dollars." And Lee Myers was ready. The town of Matthews hired a lobbying firm named The Ferguson Group, which also represents Mooresville, Monroe, Concord and about a dozen other cities and counties in the state. It would cost Matthews $6,000 or $7,000 a month, but Mayor Myers didn't see that he had much choice at the time. "Without The Ferguson Group - to do nothing - I can assure, our return will be nothing," says Myers. So, now it's February 2010. Matthews has paid about $80,000 to The Ferguson Group and received just one stimulus grant. One. For $35,000. It's for the local police department and the town's manager, Hazen Blodgett, says they were expecting that money anyway - stimulus or not. So, has the stimulus package met his expectations? "For me it has," says Blodgett. "I mean, I did not have high expectations." Or at least, Blodgett apparently lowered his expectations once it became clear how the stimulus money was going to be divvied up. Instead of going directly to cities and towns for their most pressing needs, the majority of it has gone to states to spend as they see fit. In North Carolina, the Department of Transportation is the biggest single recipient of stimulus funding so far with $679 million. Blodgett says Matthews had a whole list of new roads and widening projects it would love to use stimulus money for, but there was a big catch: The projects had to be ready to go. "Because obviously they wanted it dumped into the economy very, very quickly," says Blodgett. "And we just didn't have anything on the shelf waiting for funding." That's not to say Matthews hasn't benefitted from stimulus funding. But in most communities, the money has gone mainly to schools, health departments and other agencies rather than into the city's coffers. For example, the state Department of Transportation is spending about $500,000 to repave some roads in downtown Matthews. The city of Concord didn't get stimulus money for any of the road projects it requested, but City Manager Brian Hiatt says they got more than $2 million they weren't expecting. "I would say two-thirds of the amount we received is on projects we would not have done within the next year or two," says Hiatt. Among other things, Concord is using the money to install LED street lights, put cameras in police cars and take an inventory of contaminated land in city boundaries. All told, the grants will create or save about 75 jobs. Not the windfall Concord was hoping for, says Hiatt, but, "you can't be greedy. "We had a lot of needs," says Hiatt. "We have to be satisfied with what we got." Or, put a little more dryly by Mooresville's town manager Steve Husemann, "We can either stand around and cry about it or we can try to go ahead and make the most of what we have." Like Matthews, Mooresville only got one stimulus grant - about $35,000 for its police department. And like both Matthews and Concord, Mooresville is spending thousands of dollars a month for lobbying help from The Ferguson Group. But lobbying firms like that specialize in getting money earmarked for their clients in spending bills. And the stimulus bill didn't work that way. "This was not an earmarking situation," says Concord City Manager Brian Hiatt. "They were not able to help us other than just providing us with information on what was available out there." Instead, The Ferguson Group wrote an 84-page cheat sheet on which grants were available with stimulus money and tutored clients on how to get them. Now, The Ferguson Group is lobbying Congress so that if there is a second stimulus package, more of the money will bypass state bureaucracy and go directly to cities and towns.