Around Martha’s Vineyard last week, town leaders paused in their attempts to find savings in their fiscal 2010 budgets to quickly put together lists of so-called shovel-ready projects that could be funded once Congress and new president Barack Obama agree on the details of an economic stimulus plan.
The projects, submitted by Island towns at the request of Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray, would cost $58 million in the aggregate. The project paperwork estimates the work would create between nearly 1,000 Island construction jobs, ranging from 30 days for several small bridge repair projects to more than one year for affordable housing projects such as Bradley Square in Oak Bluffs and Middle Line Road in Chilmark.
Towns focused heavily on large-scale public housing and municipal building projects, energy efficiency and infrastructure improvements, such as bridges, roads and communications, the submissions show.
While the window of opportunity for filing was less than a week, it is likely that grants, if they come, will not move as quickly since overwhelmed state officials this week sifted through thousands of submissions worth billions of dollars from the state’s 351 cities and towns.
Most Island communities took pragmatic note of the shovel-ready requirement and submitted projects already in the planning and bid stage, many of which were to be funded by town taxes and other state grant money such as Community Preservation Act funds for affordable housing projects.
“We wanted to submit projects that actually had a chance of being funded and completed within the timeline rather than ‘pie in the sky’ wish list sorts of things,” West Tisbury town administrator Jen Rand said this week.
Veteran town officials are suspicious of the state’s ability to flawlessly pull off an 11th-hour program of such massive proportion. “The program is a little worrisome. It happened so quickly, and it is difficult for government to respond quickly and effectively,” Oak Bluffs town administrator Michael Dutton said this week.
However, Mr. Dutton sees substantial long-term benefits accruing to his town from some relatively small information technology projects such as coordinating Oak Bluffs communications lines.
“For example, we submitted a plan to replace telephone lines with wireless in our wastewater system. That project would save the town $15,000 to $18,000 a year. Extrapolating that to the entire town communications system, we could save $50,000 to $60,000 a year just in telephone line charges,” he said.
Mr. Dutton also see value in the submissions simply because the projects will now show up on state radar. “At least they are on the horizon. If our projects are not funded this time, there’ll be some state recognition of their existence for the future,” he said.
Like Mr. Dutton, other Island town officials are managing their expectations. In West Tisbury last Tuesday night, selectmen used an estimate provided by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission that the projected stimulus fund could provide $4 to $5 million per town.
As they compiled a list of road, bridge and infrastructure repairs as well as new sidewalk in front of town hall, executive secretary Jen Rand murmured, to no one in particular, “I’ll be happy if we get $4,500.”
There are precious few details other than criteria and deadlines. Ms. Rand noted that the state was helpful but has little concrete direction to offer communities, “They are not getting much direction from Washington yet,” she said.
The evening before in Chilmark, as selectman drew up their list, J.B. “Riggs” Parker suggested a long-wished for new firehouse be added to the Chilmark request, contending that fire houses fit the public safety criterion.
The firehouse did not make the list, but selectman Warren Doty noted as he has in the past that Islanders need jobs in a down construction economy.
At a recent board meeting, Mr. Doty observed, “this is an economy that turns carpenters into fishermen.”