The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known asThe Stimulus Bill, requires that governmental bodies be transparent about how they spend stimulus money. There’s quite a bit of literature analyzing decisions about stimulus spending but very little explanation of the process city officials go through to get the money. Here’s an overview compiled with the help of Assistant City Manager Paula Hertwig-Hopkins.
1. Federal agencies post listings of available stimulus funding on their Web sites.
Funding usually comes in the form of individual grants given to cities to serve a certain purpose or fulfill a specific need. Sometimes, the money comes in the form of a block grant, or a lump sum, to be used for projects or programs in a general sector, such as energy.
Hertwig-Hopkins said that in order to more efficiently distribute the money, Congress decided to funnel stimulus money through existing agencies and departments. For example, the U.S. Department of Education distributes stimulus money to hire new teachers or to give schools additional resources; the U.S. Department of Energy distributes money for energy efficiency; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency distributes money to programs that reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. Hertwig-Hopkins, however, emphasized that not all such grants are free gifts. Some require that matching money be invested by the state and/or city.
Some of the stimulus money goes directly to states to be used specifically for unemployment, highway repairs and programs such as Medicaid. Apart from these stipulations, the state legislature has some discretion over how the remaining money is used.
2. Columbia government officials monitor these Web sites and other sources daily to search for new stimulus opportunities.
Hertwig-Hopkins checks several different sources where announcements are made regarding opportunities to apply for stimulus funding. She said that it is an active process and that the more work that goes into it, the more chance there is to get something out of it.
“We’re plugged into all the different Web sites, the announcements when they happen, the spreadsheets that are out there,” Hertwig-Hopkins said. “We’re plugged into all the right channels to make sure when the announcements come, we’re ready."
Certain groups, such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors, monitors announcements by federal agencies regarding stimulus grants or loans, and they post these announcements to their sites as well. Mayor Darwin Hindman is a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and Hertwig-Hopkins uses its site to track new programs and grants.
3. Officials identify viable funding opportunities, review application requirements and assemble the necessary components of the application.
In order to get a better grasp on which programs and grants the city would be best suited for, Hertwig-Hopkins did extensive research on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
“I read the bill, so I had an idea of where the major departments were going to be at and where the major money was going to be at.”
The viability of funding opportunities depends on several factors. City officials calculate what it would cost to maintain programs or projects that are initially paid for with stimulus money and whether those changes are sustainable under the current budget.
The senior staff and head of each department that applies for stimulus money weigh the costs and benefits of the project, then submit their proposal to the city finance director and the city manager for review. Hertwig-Hopkins said each application goes through an extensive review before being submitted.
4. Departments turn in applications to the federal or state agency and wait to receive feedback about what additional information or plans they need to provide.
Most applications for competitive stimulus grants have a due date, but many encourage applications to be submitted well before the deadline for two reasons. First, if the agency reviewing the application tells officials that it is missing information, the city has time to go back and fix it. Second, the faster an application for a competitive grant gets in, the more chance the city has of winning stimulus money.
A report by the Missouri Economic Stimulus Coordination Council recommended cooperation among Missourians, asking that communities band together and submit unified applications for competitive grants. But because speed is often an important factor in the submission process, and because it can be difficult to coordinate cross-community applications in a timely manner, the distribution system doesn't seem to foster collaboration.
Hertwig-Hopkins said that the entire process is ongoing and that the city will continue to seek stimulus funding as long as it is available.
“We’re looking at this money as a one-time opportunity … and Columbia stands at this point to receive a fair amount of it.”