COLUMBIA — Stimuluswatch.org allows folks from across the country to view, comment on and rank lists of what local officials have determined to be "shovel-ready" projects in need of federal stimulus money.
The 44 projects on Columbia's list, officials say, would require almost $93 million and create 286 jobs. Local officials said the list of projects ready to go within 90 to 180 days was assembled by City Manager Bill Watkins and his staff. It was intended to demonstrate to the federal government that cities are ready to put stimulus money to work immediately.
"We had no expectation that we would get the money for anywhere near all those projects, nor did we prioritize," said Mayor Darwin Hindman, who was in Washington, D.C., last week to lobby on behalf of municipal government requests for the money. "We just provided the information as to what we could do if the money came our way."
Stimuluswatch founder Jerry Brito, a senior fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, said he created the Web site in his spare time with the help of two developers so that the public would have an opportunity to evaluate stimulus requests and to provide additional information and context.
Brito said he hoped the site would "help inform the administration about what citizens want and don't" want and would help hold the government accountable during a time of unprecedented federal spending.
"If we have a million eyeballs on this site going through all these projects, separating the wheat from the chaff is going to be pretty easy," Brito said.
Brito said he hopes the administration of President Barack Obama will provide updated information as stimulus money is doled out, so that he and others involved with the site can update it over time.
As of Tuesday afternoon, stimuluswatch users had voted $9 million for a railroad overpass across Highway 63 to be the most urgent of the projects submitted by Hindman to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January.
Voters' least-favorite of Columbia's requests were $650,000 to supplement the annual allocation for the replacement of playground equipment and $300,000 for an armored vehicle for "rescue" and "homeland security" use.
Hindman said that some of the federal stimulus money would reach cities such as Columbia, either directly or through federal and state channels, but that "when the cities get money, they're going to decide how to use that money, and they're not going to look at that Web site to make decisions."
Hindman said that because stimuluswatch is open to anonymous voters from across the nation, he could not place much weight on the site's findings and would instead rely on the City Council to decide which projects would be most important and create the most jobs.
"Assuming the money came to Columbia so we were able to make some decisions about projects, I assure you that Web site would have no impact on what we would decide to do," Hindman said.
The economic stimulus measure pushed by Obama moved one step closer to approval Tuesday after the Senate passed an $838 billion economic recovery plan. An $819 billion package has already won approval in the House. The plan now goes into tough House-Senate negotiations before a final vote is held, which could come by this weekend.
Hindman said the bill would likely put a premium on urgency, which might then require state and federal departments to streamline their normal funding processes so that cities can begin projects as soon as possible.
"People need to understand how important this recovery bill is to cities and Columbia," Hindman said. "We need to be active in connection with the various decisions that are going to be made on this recovery bill."
Hindman said that because he sits on the advisory board of the U.S. Conference of Mayors — whose funding requests provided the raw material for stimuluswatch — he is well-positioned to help keep Columbia well informed of the process.
"Cities should get a reasonable share of the recovery money because I think that will do a lot for the recovery and the sustainability of the recovery," Hindman said. "There's a lot to be said for getting money to where the people are, where the jobs are most needed."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.