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Federal Stimulus Money Starts to Flow

(from Maine Townsman, March 2009)
By Lee Burnett

For municipal officials wondering about funding opportunities in the $787 billion economic stimulus package, there’s both fresh infusions of money in old programs and brand new programs.

Among the newest opportunities are grant programs for:

• reducing fossil fuel use in heating and transportation

• extending broadband to rural Maine

• building infrastructure that improves economic resiliency in disaster-struck counties, and

• planning protection measures for impaired urban streams.

There’s also big new money for roads, sewer and water systems, police equipment and personnel, and brownfields sites. Some money is coming through the state and some is coming straight from the federal government.

Much can be done even while you wait for guidelines and deadlines to be announced. A first step should be to get registered through www.grants.gov and www.fedconnect.net, two online services where federal agencies post opportunities and accept grant applications. One is not a substitute for the other. Some agencies use one, some the other. If you’ve never done it before, plan to set aside some time. Each requires a DUNS number and a CCR user profile, which can take up to three weeks to process. Tech support is available, but the wait can be lengthy. Even after you’re registered, don’t leave filing the grant application to the last hour. On submission day, it can be nerve-wracking to consume hours working out a glitch in the online application and then learn that yours is one of 14,000 applications being filed the same evening.

It helps to assign a point person to research opportunities, and subscribe to bulletins and news feeds. Some opportunities will come from state offices, others from federal agencies. Once you have an opportunity lined up, it may help to contact your Congressional office, particularly on major projects. Letters of support are not always required and their worth is debatable, but if you need one, plan ahead. “I would say contact us as soon as you know you’re going to put in an application,” said Ed Gilman, spokesman for U.S. Representative Mike Michaud. “We are ready, willing and able to help in any way possible but our advocacy is limited to just that, we can’t demand anything.”

There will be new reporting requirements. Stimulus funds must be tracked separately for maximum transparency and expenditure reports must be filed more frequently. Documenting the jobs retained or created by each project is another new requirement and could be crucial in obtaining funds. (see sidebar on next page)

Now’s the time to think creatively. There’s a lot of money in brand new programs with unexplored nooks and crannies, although much of the money is being pushed through existing programs with clear preferences.

Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant

One of the most intriguing programs is the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program being administered by the federal Department of Energy. Any community with municipal buildings to heat, streets to light or buses to run should consider it. It’s huge – $3.2 billion. As of this writing, the guidelines had not been released, but they were expected to follow the guidelines of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which was passed but not funded. The largest portion, $1.9 billion, is being awarded in formula grants to the ten largest communities in each state. Another $784 million is being awarded to states with a requirement that 60 percent of the funds be awarded to local governments not eligible for formula grants. Another $400 million will be awarded through a nationwide competition.

The program would pay for almost anything that reduces fossil fuel consumption. The program can be used to make heating, cooling and lighting buildings more efficient. That would include insulation in buildings, more efficient furnaces, more efficient lighting as well as energy audits and conservation plans. The program can also be used to reduce gasoline consumption through ride-sharing programs, sequencing stop lights, and more efficient street lighting.

For ideas of how these funds might be used, Lewiston and Portland – two communities with developed plans for how to reduce fossil fuel use – were contacted. Lewiston is considering converting its transit buses to compressed natural gas (CNG), a plan that appears to be on hold until the infrastructure catches us – the servicing, fueling and replacement parts of CNG, according to Ian Houseal, the city’s appointed “energy czar.” “We haven’t gotten rid of the idea,” Houseal said.

In the meantime, the city is running a pilot program of installing LED bulbs in streetlights. The city is also plotting all 3,500 streetlights as a layer on its GIS mapping to determine whether some streetlights can be moved or eliminated entirely to save electricity costs without loss of illumination.

“I think street lights is a real great example of what energy efficiency and conservation is about,” Houseal said. “It makes absolutely no sense to invest [in LED] lights when you can go straight to your [lighting] formula and find out if a street light is in the right spot or should be taken out.”

Lewiston is also considering spending $60,000 to install GPS devices in more than 50 city trucks as a tool for reducing fuel usage. The devices will enable more efficient dispatching of plows during a storm, and can also monitor engine idling time. The investment can be recouped in four years through an incentive system for reducing idling, he said. The city has conducted energy audits on building heating costs and plans more investments there.

Portland has just awarded a $150,000 contract for a performance audit on all 51 city buildings. The audit will determine such things as where insulation is needed, whether HVAC controls are properly calibrated and ducts properly sized. It will also prioritize investments according to cost and payback period. Getting the audit done will make the city “well-positioned” for stimulus funding, said Troy Moon, the city’s solid waste manager. The city has also developed a “climate action plan” through a citizen planning process, which should help to ensure effective investments, he said.

Rural Broadband

Rural Maine has a huge opportunity to acquire high-speed Internet connections in the $7.2 billion targeted for extending broadband service. Although guidelines haven’t been released, it’s not too soon for municipal officials to develop a partnership with a teleco, cable company or Internet provider, said Phil Lindley of ConnectME. “The details aren’t there yet ... but it’s clear they’re talking public entities or public-private partnerships,” Lindley said. He advised municipal officials to keep an eye on the website of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is competitively awarding $4.7 billion in three batches in April and October 2009 and April 2010. “There’s just a ton of money ... It’s more than I’ve ever seen,” said Lindley. “If there aren’t 50 applications from the state of Maine I’d be surprised.” Although it’s a nationally competitive program, the other competitors will be other rural communities and the law specifically requires all states to get a piece of the action, he said.

Economic Resiliency Infrastructure

There’s $150 million in funding coming through the Economic Development Administration, which may be sufficient to fund “one or two” projects in Maine, according to Alan Brigham, the EDA administrator for Maine and New Hampshire. “We’re trying to find projects that combine the greatest economic need with the greatest economic benefit,” he said. Eligible projects include water and sewer infrastructure improvements, business park expansions, rail-siding extensions, road improvements, and technology investments, he said. Potentially, much more money is available from the $500 million in Disaster Recovery funds being funneled through EDA in response to Midwest flooding in 2008. The funds are potentially available to any county that was the subject of a FEMA disaster declaration during 2008 – which includes every county in Maine except Washington and Hancock, said Brigham. “Maine could receive several million dollars,” said Brigham, who said he is aware of $7 million in potentially eligible projects in Maine.

Disaster Recovery funds are aimed at improving the resiliency of local economies. Madawaska, for example, is applying for funds to upgrade flood protections at a wastewater treatment plant, which would help protect Fraser Paper from an unplanned shutdown due to flooding, he said.

An expansion of a business park might also qualify for an EDA grant if it could be shown that it would lead to more economic diversity, and hence greater resiliency, he said.

The EDA operates on a rolling grant admission process, which tends to reward early applications, although Brigham said awards are granted throughout the year.

Watershed, Impacted Stream Planning

Maine traditionally gets about $40,000 per year in 406 (b) funds for communities to develop strategies for reducing stormwater runoff and for improving degraded urban streams. The stimulus package provides Maine with $306,000 in 406(b) funds. “To all of a sudden be getting this much money is mind blowing,” said Don Kale at Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection. Half the money must be awarded by June. Kale urges communities to take advantage of this program to develop watershed plans because municipalities will be coming under increasing pressure from EPA to clean up. “The department and the EPA won’t be handing out any implementation money without a plan,” Kale said.

What follows is a summary of funding opportunities in traditional programs.

Roads

Unless you have a project on the list released by Maine Department of Transportation on February 24, forget about getting any stimulus funding for a road or bridge repair. By law, all the $130 million coming to Maine for road improvements must be spent on a federal aid highway. “That includes everything from the Interstate down to major collectors,” said Mike Laberge, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation. “Unfortunately, it cannot be spent on local roads.” The 198 miles of road projects funded with stimulus money were ones that were already in DOT’s funding pipeline. There are 6,509 miles of federal aid highway and 13,617 miles of local roads in Maine.

Water and Sewer Infrastructure

There are three streams of stimulus funding available for water and sewer line upgrades. Most of it is already allotted. Some $29.1 million is being distributed by Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection through the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund. It’s too late to get in line for that money. Requests were due by January 30.

The DEP received requests totaling $270 million, most of them long overdue upgrade projects required by the Clean Water Act. “Some [projects] just came out of the woodwork. I’ve never heard of them before,”said Steve McLaughlin in the grants and loans office of the Bureau of Land and Water Quality. Andy Fisk says the DEP’s priorities are ready-to-go projects with the greatest environmental benefit. An award announcement is pending.

Maine’s Office of Community Development also received $3.4 million in supplemental funding. That money will be distributed among projects that applied for funding this winter, according to Mike Baran, acting director of the Office of Community Development. Some $13.5 million in projects were received, he said. “I wish we had double [the amount], but at least it’s something” said Baran. “We still won’t have enough to do absolutely everything. We’re still way over subscribed.”

If you represent a community of less than 10,000 residents, it’s not too late to apply for the approximately $20 million in water and infrastructure funding being distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program. Its money is restricted to projects in rural areas. “The extra money will help,” said Ron Lambert. “Some of the smaller communities will be able to do projects because they’ll be more affordable.” Lambert said the Rural Development application process if very user friendly. “It’s something the average town manager or non-profit CEO could do,” he said. “And if they can’t, we can work with them one on one.”

Brownfields

Any community with a pending federal Brownfields application stands a good chance of getting it funded, according to David Wright, Maine’s Brownfields program director. The stimulus package added $100 million to the program that funds assessment and cleanup of contaminated industrial sites with reuse potential. The supplemental funding – combined with a regular appropriation of $81 million – should be enough to fund “most of” the $211 million in projects that sought funding last November, he said. No new projects are likely to get funded. “My understanding is all the money is claimed,” Wright said.

Law Enforcement

In the category of “easy money” is the $3.5 million in Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (JAG) going straight to local police departments in Maine, according to an allocation list released by the U.S. Department of Justice on March 6. The program is not competitive, but a required online application is due on May 18.

The application itself will not be easy for most communities. Only 16 of the 70 eligible police departments are due to receive an individual allocation. Everyone else - including Portland, Bangor and other large communities - are due to receive joint allocation with “suggested” individual allotments. That means departments must coordinate their application with other jurisdictions in the region through a Memorandum of Understanding. The MOUs may be used to pool allotments and set up a county-wide task force, although there is no requirement for regionalization, according to Susan Oliver of the Office of Justice Assistance. “It’s totally up to you,” said Oliver. The Byrne-JAG money may be used for equipment and for retaining personnel but not for “totally new hires,” she said.

Maine Department of Public Safety is receiving another $6 million in Byrne JAG funding and a little more than half of it must be “passed through” to smaller departments not on the allocation list. The Maine Justice Assistance Council was due to hold a public hearing on March 16 at the Department of Public Safety in Augusta to gather comments on setting priorities before soliciting applications.

The Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program has also been loosened up in an effort to get more police officers on the street. Some $1 billion is available through a nationally competitive program (the first application deadline is April 14). The 25 percent local match and the $75,000 cap have both been lifted, making the program far more attractive than before. The program will pay for the salary and benefits of an officer(s) for three years as long as the community agrees to fund the fourth year.

Diesel Engine Replacement, Conversion

Maine should have at least $1.7 million in stimulus money to phase out diesel engines in school buses, locomotives, and commercial trucks and boats, according to Lynne Cayting, director of of the mobile source program in DEP’s Bureau of Air Quality. The program will pay for 25 percent of the cost of a newer diesel engine vehicle or up to 50 percent of the cost of an alternative fuel vehicle, but the old vehicle must be retired before the end of its useful life and must be destroyed. Cayting says applications will be taken until March 16. Although the program is wildly popular among lobster fishermen with 30-year-old engines in their boats, it has not generated much interest among municipalities, according to Cayting. “It’s not that easy. You need council approval, public hearing. You’ve got to have it in the budget.”

Lee Burnett is a freelance writer from Sanford.

 

Economic Modeling Software

Many funding opportunities in the $787 billion economic stimulus package carry a new requirement to document the jobs retained or created by a particular grant request.

Coincidentally, FairPoint Communications is releasing a brand new tool for measuring the economic impact of infrastructure investments. The tool is economic modeling software calibrated to reflect regional variations across Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. FairPoint is distributing the software free of charge as a contribution to regional economic development in northern New England. Development of the software was identified as a high priority by business and development leaders who participated in FairPoint’s outreach efforts since its acquisition last year of Verizon’s wired phone lines and Internet operations.

Although the software was developed as a generic tool, it is being eyed to help package applications for funding under President Obama’s stimulus package. “We’re exploring that right now,” said Frank Knott, president of ViTAL Economy of Riderwood, Md., which developed the software for FairPoint. “Job creation is one of the primary factors in awarding funding. It’s not the only one.”

It’s not yet clear what kind of job impact documentation will be required in many of the grant programs and the new FairPoint software may not be suitable in all cases. It is the most sophisticated available for measuring the impact on a particular region of a particular infrastructure investment or of particular kind of job created, says Knott.

Traditional economic modeling software relies on statewide data. The software being rolled out in northern New England uses more-difficultto- extract regional data. Southern Illinois is the only other part of the country with comparable software, he said. FairPoint unveiled the software at a recent conference hosted by the Economic Development Council of Maine. Most regional planning commissions and councils of government have copies of the software.