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ARKANSAS: Officials share plans for stimulus spending

ARKANSAS: Officials share plans for stimulus spending

Posted on Friday, June 26, 2009

Arkansas Democrat Gazette

State representatives from the Arkansas Recovery Office made stops in two Northwest Arkansas cities Thursday to detail spending plans for the state's $2.9 billion share of federal stimulus dollars.

A dozen or so state officials have traveled in vans and buses over the past two weeks to brief area leaders on the recovery money available from various state agencies and departments and the chances local, private and nonprofit groups have in getting some of it.

The public forums in Fort Smith and Springdale were the eighth and ninth stops on a tour of 18 cities across Arkansas to break misconceptions, inform the public about how the $1.3 billion already awarded to the state will be spent and to build partnerships with organizations to seek competitive federal funds.

Despite initial spending plans already in place, misconceptions persist about the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, designed to start a spark under the nation's lagging economy, a representative for Gov. Mike Beebe told nonprofit and community leaders Thursday.

"What people need to understand is that the majority of all recovery dollars are coming through existing federal programs," said Chris Masingill, who was speaking on behalf of the state recovery office.

Initial discussions of the federal stimulus package, before it was approved at a congressional level, created high expectations for the public. Masingill said the recovery office gets calls from people who say "Hey I'm going to be in Little Rock and I want to stop by and pick up my check. Tell the governor I said 'hi'."

"The reality is, we have very little discretion with how that money is spent," he said.

One of the best ways to discover what money is available and how to put in a bid for it is through the state's Web site, Masingill said.

Sonny Bell of Greenwood was one of about 20 officials who attended the Fort Smith meeting. He said Greenwood needs money to build a bypass around the city and to bring septic tank users onto the city's sewer system.

Bell was told there probably would not be a second round of stimulus money from the government because that money not spent during the time given by Congress may be redistributed later.

Crawford County Judge John Hall groused that there was no thought given by the state to the counties' and cities' needs for road money.

He said the State Highway and Transportation Department "scarfed up" most of the $351 million in transportation stimulus money for itself and "Crawford County doesn't have a penny."

Of the total, the department is giving $4 million to cities, mostly to clear up a backlog of traffic signal needs, and $6 million for county roads.

Masingill said he's heard the same complaint as Hall's from county judges throughout the state in earlier town hall meetings.

State Highway and Transportation Department spokesman Randy Ort said Congress decided to give the $351 million to the state, which is about the same amount it receives from the federal government annually.

The Highway Commission decided to treat the allocation like that from a regular year, he said, and in a regular year, the cities and counties get about $10 million from the state.

Arkansas is getting a total of $2.9 billion in federal recovery money. The state will use the money to extend unemployment benefits and to add more money for Meals on Wheels, teacher incentive pay and Community Development Block Grant money. The money will also create jobs for Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act projects, help pay for removal of abandoned leaking underground fuel storage tanks, stimulate housing construction through housing tax credits and provide more money for law enforcement.

At the governor's advice, the Arkansas Recovery Office will focus its federal grant pursuits on rural broadband Internet access and health information technology.

"The long-term potential for these resources is enormous," Masingill said.

State departments participating in the recovery program are the Department of Human Services, Department of Education, Department of Workforce Services, Economic Development Commission, Natural Resources Commission, Department of Environmental Quality, Development Finance Authority, Department of Justice and the State Highway and Transportation Department.

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