Since October, Columbia has been preparing for the possibility of some sort of stimulus package being signed into law as the recession deepened. Now it’s been more than two months since the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed into law, and more than half of the money is going to federal agencies that are in the process of allocating grants, additional funding and low-interest loans to governmental entities across the country.
Columbia’s job is to make sure it is ready to take advantage of money that fits with its needs and to let the public know how the money is being used. The city Web site (www.gocolumbiamo.com) has a page labeled “Transparency in Local Government” that allows the public to track what grants and funds we have applied for, what the status is and how the funds would be spent.
The number of projects on the page will continue to grow as more money becomes available and we send in more applications. Columbia has gotten somewhat of a head start because we already developed a list of possible stimulus projects that could be turned around in 90 to 120 days, but we still have to keep up with all the announcements for newly available grants’ guidelines and deadlines. A number of organizations do a good job of letting us know about changes in program funding, what projects the money is targeting and when applications can begin to be submitted.
I regularly check for announcements from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the International City Managers Association, the Missouri Municipal League and www.grants.gov, to name a few. We’ve been sitting in on Web casts almost every week sponsored by various federal departments outlining what they are looking for in a funding application and how to wade through the process. The city also has an internal stimulus working group with department representatives who monitor their corresponding federal agencies and professional organizations for possible funding opportunities. It’s a rare opportunity, and we don’t want to miss any chances.
So far, much of the focus has been on U.S. Department of Energy grants because many of those announcements have been made and the deadlines are short. Already, the city has a little over $1 million allocated to it from a formula for use in energy efficiency and conservation projects, the first time Columbia has ever received a Department of Energy block grant. However, the city still has to submit an application outlining what projects the money will be used on and how they will meet the requirements outlined by the agency. Those rules have not been announced yet, but we are preparing a tentative list so we can move fast once they are.
One of the city’s main principles in applying for stimulus funding is reducing our energy use, creating “green” jobs and wisely using or protecting our natural resources. This has long been a city principle, even before the stimulus package was signed into law. And luckily, one of the main themes sprinkled throughout the act is an emphasis on renewable energy and green jobs and technology. So we are working to make sure all our funding applications demonstrate how we will create jobs related to environmental sustainability and work toward energy efficiency.
For instance, one of the programs slated for increased funding that our staff has brought to my attention is through the U.S. Department of Justice and targets fire departments. We have one or two fire stations we think could qualify for money to pay for improvements. Even though the rules have not been finalized, and they are not accepting applications yet, we are already working with an architect to make sure we can demonstrate that improvements to a fire station would also increase its energy efficiency.
We’re hoping to retrofit as many city buildings as possible to make them more energy efficient and reduce our carbon footprint. We also think that those types of projects will likely score points with the application evaluators.
The EPA recently announced another project that we’re planning to look into. The agency will be asking for pilot projects that would fall under sustainability. The city has been working toward a comprehensive sustainability plan, so that is right up our alley.
Exactly when further rule and funding announcements will be made is unclear, but there should be a steady stream of application requests from the federal government in the next several months.
Of the money Columbia is slated to receive now, three projects are sure to get funding. The Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated $227,139 to Columbia for sidewalk improvements, and MoDOT has indicated it is committed to using stimulus money for improvements to Stadium Boulevard and the COLT Railroad bridge. We had hoped for more infrastructure-targeted funding in the act, but these and other projects will nonetheless provide immediate jobs. We’re also slated to receive $196,787 for law enforcement equipment, which we’ll share with the county.
As for competitive grants, receiving that money is less of a sure thing, but Columbia has still applied for four already. The wastewater treatment plant improvements, which citizens approved in a 2007 bond issue, could possibly qualify for a low-interest government loan, reducing the cost to city utility customers. And an application is being prepared for a program that funds juvenile delinquency prevention.
With only about a month since these programs began to be announced, we’re really only just getting started.
Not all programs and grants are applicable to Columbia, and some require matching funds that our budget simply cannot support right now. But we are looking for every available opportunity to benefit our community using this money, keeping in mind that you, the taxpayer, are paying for it.
We will provide as much transparency as possible about what we have applied for and how we spend your money. The communications department is stepping up the process of issuing press releases so local media can inform you of projects as they come through. And I encourage everyone to visit the city Web site to see what we’re working on.
Hopkins is the city of Columbia’s assistant city manager