Columbia officials seek substantial sum of stimulus money

Thursday, June 4, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Frank Putnam checks a methane boiler meter at the Columbia Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant. The orange engine generator in the background has been running since 1983 and produces $6,000 worth of energy a month. Plant officials are hoping to install two new generators if the stimulus money becomes available.

COLUMBIA — She read the whole thing, all 700 pages of it. And she checks several Web sites about it — daily.

Assistant City Manager Paula Hertwig Hopkins follows the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as if it’s gossip from Hollywood. In many ways, it is. There are plenty of rumors and announcements to keep her on the constant search for news about available money. Of course, it helps that there are billions of dollars up for grabs, and Columbia, she said, is in a good position to claim a substantial amount of it.

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To learn more about how the federal stimulus effort is playing out in Columbia and Missouri, go to the city's Web site.

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“We’re ahead of the game,” Hertwig Hopkins said.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the federal stimulus act, distributes money through federal and state programs rather than distributing large lump sums to communities. As the money is distributed, it is repackaged into grants and projects, each with its own goals, deadlines and financial stipulations.

For example, a grant might come from a federal agency with very loose restrictions on how the money is to be spent, while another might come from a state agency with strict instructions for the money’s use, such as a requirement for the city to match the funds.

The overarching theme of the stimulus programs, Hertwig Hopkins said, is emphasizing energy-efficient technology and jobs.

The projects fall into three categories:

  • Those that exist entirely because of stimulus money
  • Those that already existed but could be boosted by stimulus money
  • Those for which the city has applied for money that has not yet been received

So far, the city of Columbia has received about $18.7 million of the $126 million in stimulus money for which it has applied. Those numbers are expected to climb as more stimulus money is released.

To put the numbers into perspective, the $126 million requested is equal to about 32 percent of Columbia’s overall $397 million budget for fiscal 2009.  

Stimulus-enabled projects

The Missouri Department of Transportation, which has received $215 million in federal stimulus money, has decided to fund two Columbia road projects: the resurfacing of Stadium Boulevard between Broadway and U.S. 63 and a COLT railroad bridge over U.S. 63 at the northern edge of the city.

Improvements to the COLT crossing on U.S. 63 have been considered for years, said Connie Kacprowicz of Columbia Water and Light, which operates the railroad. The crossing was recently exempted from a state law that requires school buses and trucks carrying hazardous materials to stop at each railroad crossing. Vehicles stopped in the middle of the highway, where the speed limit is 70 mph, have been involved in injury and fatal accidents, Kacprowicz said.

Although rail traffic is light at the crossing, Kacprowicz said there is a danger of traffic encountering a train. MoDOT estimates one to two trains cross U.S. 63 each day between the months of March and December, while three to four trains cross the highway each day during the rest of the year.

A 2008 Columbia Terminal railroad annual report shows that traffic nearly doubled from 1998 to 2008, growing from 1,278 train cars to 2,190.

The short-line railroad that runs from Centralia to Columbia is a vital part of local industry, Hertwig Hopkins said. COLT trains deliver coal to the city’s power plant, and several companies rely on it to ship materials that are too heavy to efficiently transport by truck.

MoDOT has signed an agreement with the city to reimburse up to $9 million of the cost for a railroad overpass. The city estimates the bridge project will cost $8.1 million. It must seek bids on the project by June 15.

The new bridge will cross U.S. 63 in the same place as the existing tracks and will require construction of a sloped grade on both approaches to the bridge, Kacprowicz said.

Meanwhile, the Columbia police and Boone County sheriff’s departments hope to win a grant that would allow them to buy and share a driving simulator that would cost an estimated $114,585. The city has applied for a total of $196,787 for law enforcement equipment and programs.

"(The driving simulator) was the main item, the highest-dollar item," said Sgt. Lloyd Simons, community services supervisor for the Columbia Police Department. "A driving simulator is something that can lower your overall costs in the long run. If you can train your police department staff how to drive better, you can lower your insurance costs and claims costs."

Simons said the department also would like to use the money to buy new scheduling software at a cost of $39,600. He said that could save the department money by scheduling staff more efficiently. He said the money enables the department to address some far-reaching needs that the city’s current budget doesn’t meet.

“Not that we had those on the agenda to purchase, which we didn’t, but in the long term we’d have to look at some of those issues," Simons said.

Stimulus-boosted projects

Stimulus money also could help the city pay for an already-planned $67 million renovation and expansion of the wastewater treatment plant. Steve Hunt, manager of environmental services for the city, said the work will be done regardless of whether the plant receives stimulus money, but a federal grant could offset the amount the city needs from bonds and loans from the state.

“Stimulus or no, this project is still moving forward,” Hunt said. “Stimulus or no, we’re still going to get some bonds. Best-case scenario is that they’ll be able to issue those $67 million in bonds at a lower interest rate.”

Depending on the amount of stimulus funding allocated to the project, the state could loan Columbia the money interest-free, which would save the city anywhere from $670,000 to $1.34 million.

The plant has seen only minor updates since its construction in the 1980s, and it faces stricter regulations in 2010. The planned renovations are necessary in order to abide by the new regulations. The renovations would increase the efficiency and the processing capacity of the plant.

In the social services realm, the city has applied for $440,004 to expand the Missouri Option Program, which offers students ages 17 to 20 who are in danger of dropping out of high school the opportunity to earn their general equivalency diplomas, or GEDs, and to graduate with their class. 

The Missouri Option Program served about 30 at-risk students in Columbia last year, but officials said 20 or more students had to be turned away because there wasn’t enough money. Stimulus money would allow 20 to 25 more students to enter the program, still short of the 75 to 80 the program eventually aims to accommodate. 

Projects still seeking money

New programs and grants are announced almost weekly, and Columbia has many applications that have either been submitted or are being completed. Along with programs for fire station improvements and new sidewalks, the city has applied for $1.48 million to pay for up to six new police officer positions.

The Community Oriented Policing Services Hiring Recovery Program is a $1 billion allocation from the U.S. Department of Justice that aims to help police departments maintain their staffs.

“This is a very competitive grant, and there are communities across the country that are facing layoffs,” Simons said. “As far as I know, we’re not seeing that here.”

If the city receives money from the program, the federal government would pay three years’ worth of starting salary for each of the new positions. After that, the salaries would become the responsibility of the city. The grant money stipulates that those positions must be maintained for at least one year by the city.

“Hopefully we’ll be well beyond this economic downturn and it won’t be an issue at that point,” Simons said.

The Columbia Fire Department anticipates applying for a grant from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program sometime in June, said Laura Deneke, administrative officer for the Fire Department. The grant would pay for remodeling one or more fire stations and allow the Fire Department to hire additional firefighters.

Three fire stations — one each on Ballenger Lane, Chapel Hill Road and Oakland Gravel Road — are being considered for renovations, but the Ballenger station is at the top of the list. Deneke said several road projects in the Ballenger Lane area will make the station’s current configuration inefficient. Remodeling would allow for quicker exits and faster response times.

The exact number of firefighters the grant might finance remains unknown until the federal government announces the specifics of the program.

As part of the application process, the Fire Department must submit detailed plans for the stations it wants to remodel. That means the city must hire an engineer. Hertwig Hopkins said those sorts of requirements can create problems.

“The downside of some of that is that if you put the money upfront to design a project and you don’t get the award, the design is still good but now you’ve expended maybe a quarter of a million dollars,” Hertwig Hopkins said.

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