February 5, 2009 at 3:57 pm

Stimulus won't dent Michigan's wish list

Communities hope state's share of fed aid can fund a wide range of improvement projects.

Illustration by Rob L'Heureux)

Even with $2.6 billion likely headed Michigan's way for local improvement projects, the proposed federal stimulus package won't come close to fulfilling the wish lists amassed by the state's hard-pressed cities.

Detroit alone has pitched $1.15 billion in projects -- nearly equal to all the money the state is likely to get for basic infrastructure work, according to the measure passed in the U.S. House last week. The state is expected to net $1.2 billion for infrastructure projects and $1.4 billion more for school districts, according to congressional estimates.

The U.S. Senate is now considering a $900 billion federal stimulus package to jump-start the nation's economy.

And Michigan cities are holding out the "help wanted" signs, requesting money for new police stations, city halls, transit centers, road work, sewer projects, residential water meters and energy initiatives, among of slew of projects.

The spending won't be a cure-all for the needs of communities, many agree. But local leaders and economists say it is one of the best ways to use the package that may preserve or create up to 160,000 jobs, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.

"The neglect of our infrastructure needs have been so substantial over the years. The jobs created by this package that will be associated with pouring the concrete can't easily be outsourced," said Michigan State University economist Charles Ballard. "A lot of the jobs involve laborers. Those are the people who have been hit the hardest."

When talk of the plans for a stimulus plan began to surface, the state legislators and Michigan's congressional members approached communities, asking what infrastructure projects they had in the pipeline that could begin within months of the package's approval.

Those lists, including two compiled by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Michigan Municipal League, representing some communities, are filtering up to the governor's office. The lists reveal years of backlog and, in some cases, municipal ambition.

Detroit's wish list hits $1.15B

While most cities have focused on the standard road and water main needs, others hope to use the stimulus money for projects such as a $10 million wind turbine installation in Taylor or a $5.4 million upgrade of residential water meters in St. Clair Shores.

"The combination of need and uncertainty of what will be approved is motivating people to submit as much as they can put," said Leslee Fritz, spokeswoman for the state budget office. "Our inventory is going to be substantially larger than any package is going to look like."

Detroit's initial wish list includes $75 million for repairing 150 miles of roads, $88 million for energy-efficient street lights and $103 million for "improvements and acquisitions" around Detroit City Airport. City officials caution the list is neither complete nor definite; they are working with lobbyists to determine the best means of acquiring funds for the right projects.

"In terms of what we are requesting, the issues we're looking at are what can we do within the time frame and what's going to create the most jobs," said Daniel Cherrin, spokesman for Detroit Mayor Kenneth Cockrel Jr.

Dearborn's highlights include $21 million for a rail station along a new route from Ann Arbor to Detroit and a series of environmentally minded projects, including wind turbines along the Rouge River Gateway. Mayor John B. O'Reilly said the stimulus package helps push communities toward thinking about more environmentally conscious improvements.

"This stimulus serves as a springboard for these types of projects, like energy or weatherization, that might otherwise be difficult to undertake," he said.

The infrastructure funds are only part of the package.

Best use of money debated

Michigan's taxpayers and government stand to gain at least $18.6 billion, according to an analysis by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. About half would go toward tax cuts, covering the budget deficit and funding state Medicaid. The rest would mostly go to schools and to extend unemployment benefits. U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, said he hopes this stimulus package is a first step, pushing the government to focus on housing foreclosure relief next.

"There's a crisis of confidence in this country. People wonder whether government will respond," Levin said. "No one claims this is going to handle all the infrastructure issues and outstanding needs. This provides an important start and will provide jobs."

If passed, the stimulus wouldn't change anything in the bureaucratic system, with much of the new money required to be doled out within 90 days by the respective state agencies. The progress of any projects approved using stimulus money would be tracked on the federal Web site recovery.gov.

Even with those types of requirements, some of Michigan's job seekers aren't sure the government should be spending money to boost the economy, even if the state needs infrastructure improvements.

"Anything the government does is wait-and-see," said Todd Brazier, recently laid off from Ford's Michigan Truck plant in Wayne. "If it creates jobs, it's fine. But if it's a waste of money, as a lot of what government does is, it's not. Still, any job, I'll consider."

Economists are split over whether this is the best use of taxpayers' money.

"Over the long run, we do have to save so we can invest. Over the short term, we should be looking to spend money," said Ballard, the MSU economist.

Michael LaFaive, director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based free-market think tank, said long-term care of roads and sewers are the basic roles of local government. Relying on federal spending to address infrastructure improvements is a misguided way to achieve economic growth, he said.

"If the infrastructure requested is truly needed, one would think foresighted managers at these levels would have found the money for this long before," LaFaive said. "You just have to expect if you ring a dinner bell, every manner of hungry recipient is going to get in line."

Several communities have compiled tempered lists. In Auburn Hills, the government came up with its initial list of needs last year, focusing on roads and a new public safety building, and recently adding water main projects to the list.

"A lot of our projects are projects we've had on the shelf ready to go," City Manager Peter Auger said. "We don't want to go after federal money just to get federal money."