U.S. News

In Lane Co., stimulus money awards varied in scope

DAVID STEVES|The Eugene Register-Guard

The ill winds of economic recession have driven away from the Eugene Symphony some dollars given by donors or spent by audiences on tickets.

So Executive Director Paul Winberg has eagerly turned to the federal stimulus program for help.

The $50,000 awarded the symphony was enough to pay its 83 professional, part-time musicians for two rehearsal sessions and part of a third that otherwise would have been canceled.

"This is money that goes into the musicians' pockets, that in turn goes into the economy," he said. "It actually has met the intent of what the stimulus funds were all about."

The symphony aid is among hundreds of grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act the stimulus program that went to Lane County entities in the act's first year, 2009. The money also has gone to pay salaries of teachers in local school districts, bus drivers at Lane Transit District, government researchers studying the Amazon Creek watershed, and researchers at a nonprofit who are studying how middle school students are influenced by their peers.

In many cases, the money didn't directly spark new activity or create new jobs. Rather, it paid for public employees and others to continue doing what they already were doing, or helped the jobless survive until they find work.

The federal program aims to spend $787 billion nationwide over 2½ years. Free from any mandate to balance its budget, the federal government is borrowing heavily, then handing out the money to state and local governments that are barred by law from running deficits.

Advocates hope this helps keep the nation's economic wheels turning or its violins and cellos playing until the private sector revives.

In Oregon, the biggest chunk of stimulus aid, a projected $3.9 billion over 2½ years, will go to state agencies, which are doling out much of the money as assistance to the unemployed, the elderly and the poor.

By the end of 2009, according to a report by Gov. Ted Kulongoski's office, state government had obligated or spent nearly $1.7 billion. Of that, $707 million was emergency unemployment compensation and extended benefits to the long lines of Oregon's jobless. Another big chunk, $545 million, was direct aid to the growing ranks of the needy, in the form of increased food stamps, welfare payments and health care. Education got $279 million, mostly to pay teachers and other school and university employees.

Separately, hundreds of millions of stimulus dollars have entered Oregon without passing through state agencies, instead flowing directly to local governments, nonprofit groups such as the Eugene Symphony, and private contractors.

Add that to small-business loans plus reimbursements to car dealers for their participation in the Cash for Clunkers program, and Oregon last year received $3.9 billion in stimulus money, according to a database compiled by Pro Publica, a nonprofit journalism organization based in New York. Of that amount, $206 million went specifically to Lane County-based entities, according to ProPublica. That $206 million doesn't include large amounts of stimulus money that came to Lane County residents via state government, for example food stamps or jobless benefits.

The local awards vary widely in size and nature.

The stimulus paid $6,900 to a Eugene woman to collect and deliver native plant seeds for the U.S. Forest Service. It paid $9 million to Cascade Sierra Solutions, a green-energy nonprofit group in Coburg that is lending the money to trucking companies nationwide to buy new, fuel-efficient vehicles and to retrofit older models to burn less diesel.

The awards vary in how strictly they meet the stimulus program's aim of putting people to work and helping recession-buffeted public services.

LTD received stimulus awards totaling $9.3 million. But not all those dollars will have an equally stimulative effect on Oregon's economy.

LTD is spending $3.2 million of that to remodel a 20-year-old maintenance building, putting construction workers on the job right now on a project that LTD otherwise would have postponed for several years, LTD spokesman Andy Vobora said.

LTD put another $3.2 million of stimulus money into its operating budget, to help offset a plunge in LTD's main operating revenue, a payroll tax paid by employers. LTD's payroll tax receipts have sagged as private-sector companies laid off workers. The stimulus cash allowed LTD to delay for a year a deep cut in staffing and bus routes. LTD now plans to make those cuts this summer.

The stimulus "basically bought us a year of service to the community," Vobora said.

In its report to the federal government, LTD estimated that in the final three months of 2009, the stimulus money resulted in 44 full-time jobs mainly construction workers on the maintenance building and LTD drivers and mechanics retained.

But the remaining $3 million, for buying three hybrid-electric articulated buses for the 2011 expansion of the EmX line into west Eugene, is unlikely to help the local economy or preserve public services, although it meets stimulus rules.

The three buses were delivered by a Canadian manufacturer, New Flyer, after the company assembled them in Minnesota to satisfy the federal government's "Buy American" requirements. The federal government already had promised to buy the buses for LTD through the Federal Transit Authority's "Small Starts" grant program, rather than from stimulus funds, Vobora said.

"Why they decided at the federal level to use those (stimulus) funds instead of the Small Starts funds, I'm not sure," he said.

The feds are handing a mixed bag of stimulus aid to the Lane Council of Governments, too. The Eugene-based public agency helps a range of local governments.

An $8.3 million stimulus award to LCOG announced this month will help pay to expand broadband Internet service to public facilities such as fire and police stations in three counties, including Lane, over the next two years. The money will pay for private companies to install the new fiber-optic lines. An added benefit: Private Internet service providers can tie into the new lines and offer faster service to their rural customers, LCOG's Milo Mecham said.

But it's less easy to see how another stimulus award to LCOG last year will help the region get over the recession. That's a $375,000 grant to help pay for additional study of the possible restoration of Eugene's Amazon Creek and Springfield's Cedar Creek to their natural states. The grant paid for existing LCOG workers and some environmental contractors, so it certainly didn't hurt the local economy. But Jeff Krueger, a landscape architect with the Lane Council of Governments, said the planning work is only one in a series of steps that eventually could lead to major restoration over the next couple of decades.

"It should lead to job creation in the future, but it's not like a typical highway construction project," he said.

The stimulus act has funded some more traditional public works projects. Eugene-based OBEC Consulting Engineers is among Lane County's busiest private-sector participants in these. Last year it worked as a subvendor on 19 stimulus projects in Oregon totaling $4.7 million. Most involved road repaving or construction of bicycle or pedestrian paths.

OBEC, with branches in Medford, Salem and Lake Oswego, has cut its staff to 110 during this recession, down from 120, vice president Larry Fox said. Without the stimulus work, the cuts might have been worse, he said.

"It didn't prevent (job reductions) all together, but it certainly helped," he said. "It kept us from having to reduce people's work hours or get to the point of having to lay people off."

For the Eugene-based nonprofit Oregon Research Institute, last year's $2.77 million stimulus award has meant commencing behavioral research projects faster than usual.

Kathryn Madden, ORI's science administrator, said it typically takes 18 months from submitting a proposal to getting the money and starting work. The federal urgency on stimulus spending has cut that in half, she said.

"What's exciting about it is, it's right now," Madden said. "It's, 'Let's do this right now.'"

One of ORI's stimulus awards is paying for a study of how middle school students are influenced by their peers. Another examines how to improve child development in impoverished neighborhoods. ORI says the money let the agency keep 19 full-time and 32 part-time jobs and create six part-time jobs.

The Oregon Social Learning Center, another Eugene-based nonprofit, pulled in $1.26 million of stimulus money. Rita Svanks, a management analyst there, said the center expects to win an equal amount this year to continue the research, which includes testing a program to help at-risk teenage boys, and studying drug abuse by women and violence by intimate partners.

Svanks acknowledged that the work done largely by researchers with advanced degrees and helped by graduate students and college interns won't directly help out-of-work Oregonians. But she said without money like this coming in, workers who depend on government grants for their livelihood could face economic uncertainty.

"Their lives can be precarious," Svanks said. "They're bringing money in only if they can design a grant and it's awarded."

In all, the center reports, the money should create or keep 37 jobs, from part-time internships for 16 University of Oregon undergraduate students to a promotion to full-time senior scientist for a research associate who otherwise would have been laid off.

Stimulus grants have also helped Lane County residents who lack such advanced educations.

The 15 employees of Phyllis Backstrom Quality Medical Transcription Inc., run by a Springfield couple, are getting a few extra paid hours each week. Business co-owner Larry Backstrom said that's a result of a $294,588 stimulus award to Lane County government to help people who lack health insurance. The number of Oregoninans without health insurance has skyrocketed as people lost their jobs and their coverage. The main aim of the stimulus award was to help the county add a pediatrician, nurses and clerical staff.

Backstrom figures his business's revenue has risen about $2,000 a month as his employees log more hours to fulfill their contract.

"It is helping," Backstrom said. "If things get better, I may be able to add a full-time-equivalent worker."

Portland businessman Glenn Foreman's Full Circle Property Management is being paid through the stimulus program to clean 19 parks, campgrounds and boat ramps at six lakes run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Lane County.

Foreman employs nine people, including several who are, like himself, disabled veterans.

Foreman, a Vietnam veteran, acknowledged that before he won the contract, the federal government was paying another company to do the work. It wasn't called "stimulus" money then, but it paid for the same thing, Foreman said: cleaning campgrounds and outhouses at places such as Fern Ridge and Dorena lakes.

"If (public agencies) cut back on these parks, then you've got people raising Cain, saying we pay all this money and don't get anything for it."


Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com