Open notebook: Following stimulus contracts

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Recovery.gov might not be useful yet for “following every penny” of stimulus spending, but with a telephone, Google, USASpending.gov and some luck it might not be that hard. Pretty much at random, I picked out a bunch of congressional press releases touting stimulus dollars going to local communities, and started making calls. Here’s some notes on where one inquiry led me.

Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania’s 3rd district (roughly the northwest corner of the state) put this press release on her Web site on March 24, announcing that, “The Mercer County Housing Authority is slated to receive $1,703,727 as part of the Capital Fund Program.” A second reference to the project can be found on USASpending.gov. The ultimate source of the funds is the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

I called Mercer County Housing Authority and the regional HUD office to find out more about the project–what is its status, have contracts been awarded, are they reporting information to federal or state officials and if so what information are they reporting. Based on what I found, I ended up not asking some other questions: How many jobs had been created to date or exactly how much of the $1.7 million has been spent so far. It seems that this particular project is just getting started. I also learned that HUD’s time line for spending stimulus dollars only requires that recipients have legally binding contracts in place within a year of funds being awarded–not that they spend a certain percentage of the funds available to them.

Jim Cassidy, director of the HUD Office of Public Housing in Pittsburgh, Pa., said HUD awarded the funds through a block grant formula — a complicated bit of algebra that divided among public housing authorities the stimulus money available for the Capital Fund Program. Cassidy told me that the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act directed $4 billion to the Capital Fund Program, which pays for development and modernization of public housing. “$3 billion was awarded on a formula basis,” he said; housing authorities will compete for the other $1 billion.

Stimulus spending through the Capital Fund Program is being done on an expedited basis. I don’t mean to sound flippant, but expedited for the federal government is a relative term: instead of projects having a four year life cycle, recipients will have to spend it in three years. The expedited time line goes like this:

March 18, 2009: Funds obligated (that is, each public housing authority in the country receives approval letter saying they’re getting a certain amount of money)

March 17, 2010: Public housing authorities have to have a legally binding contract (or contracts) in place to spend the money.

By March 17, 2011, Public housing authorities are required to spend at least 60 percent of the stimulus funds they were awarded.

By March 17, 2012, PHAs are required to spend 100 percent of the stimulus funds awarded.

So how is this playing out on the ground? Beth Burkhart, the administrative director of the Mercer County Housing Authority, says they’ve decided how to spend their stimulus funds — converting efficiency units in the Vermeire Manor retirement home to one bedroom apartments — and that HUD has approved the project. They have some firms lined up to do some of the work (this public notice in the Sharon, Pa., Herald lists them — Perfido Weiskopf Architects and asbestos contractor AGX, Inc.; they’re still looking for help with plumbing, electrical work, HVAC and a general contractor). On July 2, they’ll hold a pre-bid conference, with bids due on July 14.

I asked a lot of questions about what information would be reported to Recovery.gov, but both Cassidy and Burkhart explained that they had yet to receive that guidance from HUD, and just weren’t sure yet what the reporting requirements would look like.

Currently, Recovery.gov has a spreadsheet that tells you that $212,155,156 has been obligated for all of all of Pennsylvania under HUD’s Capital Fund Program. Mercer County Housing Authority, or even the generic term “public housing authority,” doesn’t appear. I didn’t do as thorough a search, but I couldn’t find a reference to the project on Pennsylvania’s recovery site (here’s the page for Mercer County projects).