City Hall

  • Why a $7.3 million stimulus project is a year behind schedule in San Antonio

    Red tape stalls stimulus project in San Antonio by John Tedesco

    We’ve been checking how stimulus funds are being spent in Bexar County, and one of the interesting things we’ve learned is how money for some projects still hasn’t been spent, more than a year after the Recovery Act became law.

    Last month I met Peter Zanoni, assistant city manager for the city of San Antonio who’s in charge of the city’s stimulus projects. He and his staff said the stimulus is great for San Antonio but they were also open about some of the difficulties they faced. At one point, Zanoni showed me a chart detailing how the city had been awarded $118 million in stimulus money. But as of April, the city had only spent about a tenth of that — $12 million.

    “So you’re probably saying, ‘Jeez, what are you guys doing? That’s pretty weak,’” Zanoni quipped.

    The problem is that officials want to spend the money quickly, but they also want to make sure it’s spent appropriately. There’s a ton of federal oversight — audits, reviews, paperwork — that the city must deal with.

    I ended up focusing on an example of a project that was mired in red tape. The city had plans for two fire stations that were “shovel ready” and had received $7.3 million in stimulus grants. The money came from FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency. I got a tip that the project was taking forever and the contractor on the job, Bartlett Cocke, even had to lay off a few employees.

    Not quite what the stimulus program was supposed to be accomplishing.

    The tip turned out to be true — I interviewed Kirk Kistner at Bartlett Cocke who confirmed it. I also asked for any e-mails from the city that discussed the delays with the fire stations and other stimulus projects. It’s important in these kinds of stories to track down pertinent documents. Tad Wille, budget program analysis manager for the city who somehow keeps track of all the paperwork tied to stimulus projects, was very helpful in compiling a pile of e-mails discussing the delays.

    In one message, a deputy fire chief updated his bosses about the federal regulations that were slowing down the project: “FEMA stated to me that ‘shovel ready’ was not a term in their lexicon,” the chief wrote. The e-mails helped lay out the timeline of events and revealed concerns expressed privately by city officials.

    Red tape stalls stimulus project in San Antonio

    One thing I wanted to know is whether other fire departments were experiencing similar delays with these fire station grants. Federal data allowed us to answer that question.

    Recipients of stimulus dollars file spending reports, and that data is posted online at Recovery.gov, the official website of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. In the data, each type of grant is identified by a specific code. So you can filter the data by that code to find who has received similar grants.

    That’s what I did for the fire station grants. It allowed me to write the following graphs in my story about the fire stations:

    According to the most recent spending reports posted online by the Recovery Board, 118 fire departments in the United States had been awarded nearly $200 million in grant money to build new stations. But four of five recipients reported the projects have yet to start, and few jobs have been created.

    The reasons for the delays aren’t always FEMA’s fault. In the town of Edgewater, Fla., the station still is being designed, so a detailed environmental assessment required by FEMA didn’t interfere with construction, Fire Captain Jill Danigel said.

    “That process did take us many, many months,” Danigel said. “If we were shovel ready, that would have held us up.”

    In Valley Hill, N.C., Fire Chief Tim Garren said he’s in the “same boat” as the San Antonio Fire Department.

    “We’re as shovel ready as can be,” said Garren, whose department received a $640,000 grant in September 2009 to build a new station. Garren still is waiting for the environmental assessment at the site to be approved.

    “I don’t want to fuss because it’s going to be free money, and it’s greatly needed,” Garren said. “But it’s still frustrating.”

    We plan to run more stories about local stimulus projects and their impact in Bexar County. I’ve been bookmarking interesting websites about the stimulus and sharing them online through Diigo, feel free to check them out and offer recommendations or tips.

  • Follow the money: Searchable payroll database of city employees posted online

    salaries1

    Reporter Greg Jefferson wrote a story in today’s paper that examined how taxpayer money is being spent on salaries and overtime for San Antonio’s 10,000 city employees. The story looks at the city’s highest-paid employees, and explains why $13 million in overtime went to the Fire Department and many of its dispatchers.

    This information was gleaned from a payroll database at City Hall. Express-News Database Editor Kelly Guckian filed an open-records request, obtained the data from the city and analyzed it. And you can analyze the data yourself. Mike Howell, managing editor of the Express-News Web site, set up a user interface for our online readers. You can look up employees by name. Or simply hit “search” and the results will automatically show you the highest-paid employees.

    The salaries range from $275,000 (City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who recently received a much-publicized raise), to $18,200 (an employee in the city’s Human Resources Department).

    City Manager Sheryl Sculley
    City Manager Sheryl Sculley

    Other media organizations, believing the public has a right to know how tax money is spent, are publishing payroll data of government agencies. The nonprofit group Texas Watchdog recently posted data of state employees earning more than $100,000.

    Readers have had mixed reactions. Not everyone believes the names and salaries of government employees should be made public, as some of the comments on this blog post by the Houston Chronicle show. One reader wrote: “I wholeheartedly agree that this is public information, but that doesn’t mean it has to be broadcast without context.”

    I think the key question is whether the database helps readers learn something about the way their government works.

    Examining how tax money is spent is a legitimate news story. And if that’s the case, why shouldn’t readers be able to look at the data themselves and crunch the numbers? In the Internet age, shouldn’t newspapers make this information publicly available to everyone, instead of keeping it to themselves?

    A ranking of the highest-paid officials might show us the priorities — and possible excesses — of a government agency. And in a city where police and firefighters constantly complain about being understaffed, it’s revealing to see a few public-safety employees earning nearly $80,000 in overtime in 2007. Are those dispatchers overworked?

    If publishing this data gives readers a tool to ask those kinds of meaningful questions, that’s a good thing.