Small Colorado towns wonder if they’ll see stimulus
FEDERAL HEIGHTS, Colorado ” It doesn’t take an engineer to see that the buckling road in front of the Federal Heights fire station needs work.
But it does take more than this small town can muster to get federal money to cover repairs it can’t afford to 90th Avenue. It’s a two-lane drive that’s insignificant on a regional level, but crucial to the 12,000 people who live in this suburb just northwest of Denver.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” sighed Federal Heights Mayor Joyce Thomas, a part-time mayor, accountant and used-car dealer who pores over the town’s books in her kitchen, where she juggles calls from constituents, tax clients and customers of A-OK Motors.
Federal Heights has been patching holes on 90th Avenue since a sewage project last year left it looking like an asphalt jigsaw puzzle. But so far it’s been passed over for state funding from the stimulus law, leaving a repair bill of about $1 million ” a hefty sum for a town whose total annual budget is about $15 million.
“The condition of that road is only going to get worse,” Thomas worries.
The $787 billion economic stimulus package promises an infusion of cash for stalled repairs and other projects governments have put on hold as tax dollars dwindle.
But in towns like Federal Heights, there is little hope it will solve their troubles ” at least in the short term. They lack the specialists needed to locate funding in the sprawling recovery law, and they’re dealing with state officials overwhelmed by money requests.
“We’re still hanging, waiting for word. At this point we’re not seeing any money from the stimulus,” said Jynnifer Pierro, mayor of Granby, a Grand County town of 1,500 people. Like many towns, Granby relies on taxes from building permits for much of its modest budget of about $5 million. As the building industry has soured, so has the town’s finances.
Granby laid off its economic development director at the end of last year and doesn’t have the money to install a new stop light needed in town. Pierro’s calls to state highway officials go unreturned.
“The money’s going to be hard to come up with,” said Pierro, whose town saw building permit fee revenue drop by more than half last year.
While state authorities have more questions than answers, their municipal colleagues say they’re completely in the dark.
“It’s like standing in front of a fire hydrant, and it’s hard to absorb it all,” said Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, an association of 262 towns.
Mamet says his inbox is flooded with questions from city officials. The needs are great. According to a CML survey, 85 percent of Colorado municipalities reported flat or declining revenue in 2008.
“They’re both overwhelmed by the amount of money that has been released through the package, and very appreciative, but they are also overwhelmed by the deadlines and the amount of information,” Mamet said.
In Telluride, a mountain resort of about 2,300 people, Mayor Stu Fraser guesses about 80 percent of his constituents voted for President Barack Obama, chief architect of the recovery act. But Fraser says Telluride folks are less than certain the plan will help replace a city-maintained road they call “The Spur” that is covered with potholes.
“The towns we hear getting things, they all tend to be on the Front Range. What about all the other towns? That’s what we’re wondering,” Fraser said.
Big-city mayors say they’re not hogging stimulus money, but that state transportation dollars need to be spent where they’ll do the most to create jobs and promote development.
“It’s not about just trying to bring projects into your city. It’s about making your entire community stronger,” Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper said in a recent interview.
Denver’s top priority ” improvements to Union Station worth $18.6 million ” was awarded in early March by the Denver Regional Council of Governments, which already has dished out more than $60 million in stimulus money.
Hickenlooper said he also advocates for things outside Denver, such as a proposed interchange in Aurora that got funding. But he stressed the money must be spent where it can create the most jobs.
“We’re going to create jobs that lead to a better economy in the next couple years and take us in a new direction,” Hickenlooper said.
Back in Federal Heights, Thomas doesn’t disagree, even though 90th Avenue was passed over while Denver got a much bigger check for its rail station.
“You have to keep in mind,” she said, “that Mr. Obama’s plan is to help the region, and that does help the region. But it doesn’t help a town that can’t afford to get a project done.”
The main gripe from small towns, Thomas said, is that they lack paid experts to comb through the stimulus law looking for areas where they could benefit. And so far, there’s not much help on that front from state officials.
“How are we, at this level, to review these 800-some pages and figure out what’s in there for us?” Thomas asked. “There may be things in there that are perfect for us, the smaller guys, but we’d never know it.”
On the Net:
Colorado Municipal League: http://www.cml.org
Colorado stimulus news: http://www.colorado.gov/recovery