Delahunt drops in to discuss promise of federal dollars
The skies were clear and thermometers recorded a brief respite from a frigid winter when 10th District Congressman William Delahunt visited Martha's Vineyard on January 29. But in a room full of Island government officials, the gloomy storm clouds hanging over local budget decision makers were all but visible. So it was fitting that Mr. Delahunt used a weather metaphor to assure his audience that the $819 billion stimulus package passed by Delahunt and his Democratic colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives a day earlier is a forecast of brighter days.
"If we can get through this, and we will," said Mr. Delahunt, "maybe by the end of this year we'll begin to see little droplets of sunshine peeking through extremely dark clouds. Then maybe by the end of 2010, we'll get a few sunny days."
Photo by Steve Myrick
Dollars and sense
The stimulus plan passed by the U.S. House includes more than $4.5 billion in funding for Massachusetts. Federal dollars are allotted for an alphabet soup of federal programs, covering health care, energy, education, public infrastructure, and other sectors.
"While we're trying to create jobs, we quickly became aware of the stresses in municipal and state budgets," said Mr. Delahunt. "It doesn't make any sense to create jobs and see state government have massive layoffs."
The stimulus bill includes more than $1 million to fund education-related programs here on Martha's Vineyard, including construction money, and funding for disabled or disadvantaged students. (See accompanying table.) While local school officials are cautious about devils that may be hiding in the details, they say the funding will relieve stress on their budgets.
"I'll give you an example," said James Weiss, superintendent of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School district. "Our Title 1 funds have been declining over time. They pay for services for kids who need extra help. Two years ago the federal government paid 100 percent of the cost, this year they paid only about 70 percent. This could bring it back close to 100 percent." Mr. Weiss said that would free up funds to pay for other basic education services. The stimulus bill will not, however, provide enough funding to avoid layoffs. The regional high school budget for the coming fiscal year includes personnel cuts totaling 5.4 full-time positions, including teachers, special education assistants, and a custodian. "It won't be enough," said Mr. Weiss.
Infrastructure spending is only about five percent of the total stimulus package. Mr. Delahunt explained that Congress plans a separate spending package dedicated mostly to infrastructure in May.
Island towns rushed to get in line for federal funding over the past month, heeding President Barack Obama's call for "shovel-ready" projects.
But the federal government appears to define "shovel ready" far more literally than many local officials.
"Some people think it's a project they've thought about, or maybe have town meeting approval," said Mark Forest, chief of staff for Mr. Delahunt "Shovel-ready means permitted, ready to go." He cited the Lagoon Pond drawbridge as a project "that's about as shovel-ready as you're going to get."
"We put in 18 shovel-ready project requests," said Oak Bluffs town administrator Michael Dutton. "I know the steamship authority is looking to secure funding for some of their projects as they relate to Oak Bluffs."
In Mr. Dutton's view, the stimulus bill is aimed more at creating jobs than helping local governments. "I'm not looking to the federal government to offset our budget," he said. "We are going to be done with our 2010 budget process before we get any clear signal from Washington, or the statehouse."
The House stimulus bill is a long way from law. The U.S. Senate is working on its own version this week, with political infighting increasing daily.
Mr. Delahunt offered pointed note of caution at Thursday's session. He warned that 2009 will be a tough year, and that if the stimulus plan succeeds in spurring economic recovery, the federal government will have to deal with a burgeoning deficit.
"This all sounds good," said the congressman. "At the same time, we realize we're getting ourselves deeper and deeper in the hole. When we get that spike of inflation, that presents a whole new set of problems. Right now we don't have a choice."
At one point, newly elected state representative Tim Madden, who also attended the session, noted how the "M" in millions and the "B" in billions seem to have lost their meaning as governments consider staggering bailouts and deficits.
"We're working on T's now," said Mr. Delahunt.