By John Woolfolk
The federal government has showered billions of stimulus dollars around the country this year to jump-start the economy and save jobs.
But a Mercury News analysis of reported stimulus spending so far shows it has flowed unevenly, with wide gulfs between California’s largest counties.
Nine months of data on approved grants, loans, contracts and resulting jobs from the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act shows the benefits haven’t necessarily flowed in proportion to population.
Los Angeles County, the state’s largest with 10.4 million people, received the most funds, $4.4 billion. But the next-largest amounts went to much smaller counties. Sacramento County, whose 1.4 million residents make it California’s eighth largest, has been promised $3.9 billion, while Alameda County, slightly larger with 1.6 residents, will receive $2.3 billion.
Governments in Santa Clara County, with almost 1.9 million residents, have received just $470 million in stimulus aid, only slightly more than the $420 million received by San Francisco, a city and county of 846,000.
San Jose officials say the city, with 1 million residents, has been awarded $79 million of that Recovery Act funding. That prompted Mayor Chuck Reed to criticize the stimulus during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., where he met with White House
Reed noted that Boston, whose 600,000 residents make it almost half the size of San Jose, has been awarded nearly twice as much stimulus money — $173 million.
More curious, Reed said, is Oregon’s Tillamook County. With only 25,000 residents, it has been awarded $81 million in stimulus aid, federal records show, including $47 million for maintenance dredging of boat basins that is calculated to create or save a mere six jobs.
“There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme, reason or formula to how the funding is allocated,” said Reed.
White House spokesman Adam Abrams said that with about half the stimulus funds committed, “there are still billions of dollars in funds yet to be awarded and projects yet to be fully funded that cities and counties across the country will be able to pursue.”
He added that residents still benefit from stimulus projects in nearby cities and counties. A $535 million loan guarantee for Fremont solar panel maker Solyndra’s manufacturing plant, for example, is expected to create or save 118 jobs that would conceivably benefit some residents in San Jose and other nearby cities.
Federal officials also note that much of the funding is competitive and awarded on the application’s merits, including the ability to get projects under way quickly.
Officials with the office of Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, said some of the geographic disparity comes from the self-reported nature of the data; in many cases, funds are credited as going to the county where the state capital is located — such as Sacramento or Boston.
Honda’s office added that some counties have facilities that made them eligible for specific funds; Alameda County, for example, is home to Department of Energy national laboratories and the University of California Regents, both of which received either dedicated funding or competitive grants.
Liz Kniss, who heads the Santa Clara County board of supervisors, said some counties were able to get more stimulus funding because they were willing or able to do things that are infeasible in Santa Clara County, such as siting a new prison.
“Would we have liked more money for our county? You bet,” Kniss said. “But what would it have taken to do that?”
State-by-state, funding appears more closely to follow population. California, as the nation’s most populous state, has fared well overall in Recovery Act funding, with a total of $18.5 billion awarded, compared with $10.7 billion for Texas, $10.6 billion for New York, $6.8 billion for Florida and $6.4 billion for Illinois.
President Barack Obama’s marquee economic initiative has drawn fire from Republicans who consider it a costly boondoggle, as well as sniping from fellow Democrats that it is too small to be effective.
But experts generally have agreed the Recovery Act enacted in February has helped ease the pain of the nation’s worst recession since the Great Depression, slowing job losses and allowing the economy to begin growing again.
Even so, local officials have complained for months about funding disparities from the Recovery Act. Dallas, the nation’s 9th largest city, has been promised just $108 million, and Mayor Tom Leppert has publicly complained the money hasn’t flowed quickly, efficiently or in fair proportions to big cities such as his.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors in June criticized distribution of stimulus funds for transportation infrastructure, noting that while the country’s 85 largest metropolitan areas are home to nearly two-thirds of the nation’s population and produce almost three-fourths of its economic output, they have received less than half the stimulus funds for transportation projects.
Reed said he is grateful for the stimulus funding San Jose has received. And he said he’s less concerned with city-by-city comparisons than with seeing the funds used to create lasting private-sector employment rather than temporary government-funded jobs.
A recent city audit said the city has spent about $6 million in stimulus funding on programs that have created the equivalent of 250 full-time jobs. But all but 10 of those jobs were summer internships for disadvantaged youths, while the remainder were associated with a new baggage screening system as part of the modernization of Mineta San Jose International Airport. Reed said even those jobs are temporary and related to construction.
The biggest chunk of the stimulus funding awarded to San Jose, more than $26 million, has gone toward the airport overhaul.
While the money’s helpful, Reed said the city’s economy would benefit most from more federal loan guarantees and other spending on private companies seeking to expand their operations. He applauded Obama’s move Tuesday to put some money into encouraging small businesses to create jobs.
Reed complained recently to White House officials that although about a fourth of the electric battery patents in the country originated in California, the state hasn’t received any stimulus grants for battery and electric drive manufacturing.
“I thought that was odd, and probably not a good thing for the country,” said Reed, who has been working to position San Jose as a leader in environmentally friendly technologies.
He said one local company, SoloPower, has been told it will receive at least some of the federal loan guarantees it applied for to help expand, something that would create hundreds of direct jobs. But Reed said other local companies would like similar aid.
“If you’re trying to focus on job creation,” he said, “putting money into the innovation sector would be a good idea.”
Contact John Woolfolk