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Stimulus money en route to Manatee

Details of the stimulus package began to spill out Friday, sparking a dizzying wave of speculation among local officials about how much money would end up in Manatee County. Almost everyone predicts a multimillion-dollar windfall, including funding for sizable transportation and education projects. And the hope is that at least 7,600 jobs could be created or saved in the 13th Congressional District.

Transportation gets boost

Manatee and Sarasota could get $20 million to $45 million and possibly more for local road and bridge projects from the $789 million stimulus package, local and state transportation officials estimate.

But how much, and what it will be spent on, remains unknown, said Michael Howe, executive director of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“This bill is so long that FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation) staff is still trying to digest it,” Howe said. “I mean, it’s enormous.”

During a conference call Friday, FDOT officials projected the state could get about $1.24 billion for road and bridge projects from the stimulus package. Of that, roughly $900 million would be set aside for state roads and about $400 million for local roads, Howe said.

At least two local projects, one in each county, are in the running to get money from the state’s share:

n $8 million to complete an Automated Traffic Management System in Manatee that would use closed-circuit cameras, sensors and adjustable traffic signals to smooth out traffic flow.

n $17 million to widen U.S. 301 between DeSoto Road and Myrtle Street in northern Sarasota County.

MPO officials also have drafted a list of 25 priority projects to be considered for money set aside for local roads.

Manatee’s top local projects are improving Gulf Drive in Bradenton Beach; building a roundabout on Haben Boulevard in Palmetto; and resurfacing various streets in Palmetto. The most expensive project also was the lowest-ranked: widening U.S. 301 between Erie Road and County Road 675 in Parrish.

The highest priority in Sarasota County is resurfacing streets in North Port, followed by drainage improvements along Siesta Drive and bridge trestles for the Legacy Trail project. Resurfacing University Parkway between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 was ranked fourth.

Those 25 projects, with a total estimated cost of $25.9 million, were winnowed down from an initial list of 77 projects costing an estimated $482.5 million.

The MPO plans to meet March 2 to put all of those projects on its capital-improvement plan, even though not all actually will get federal stimulus money, Howe said.

“That’s just in case Florida gets extra money” from other states that are unable to spend the money by the program’s deadline, he said. “You have to use it or lose it, so we need to be prepared.”

FDOT officials also estimate the state will get $310 million for transit projects, most of which will flow to the state’s largest transit agencies, Howe said. It’s possible Manatee County Area Transit might get some, as well as projects at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and Port Manatee.

“We could still get more for our area,” Howe said. “Potentially the area could capture $45 million or up. It’s just too early to tell right now because everything’s in a state of flux.”

Local education funds still fuzzy

Florida’s stimulus for education is about $5.1 billion, but local numbers are still fuzzy because a large chunk of the money will have to be reallocated by the state.

About $2.7 billion will go toward a state fiscal stabilization fund, which would allow for the “remodernization” of schools, colleges and universities.

Manatee County school officials don’t know how much money the district will receive and have no immediate plans for its portion of the funds.

“I don’t even want to hazard a guess as to how much that means to us,” said Jim Drake, Manatee’s assistant superintendent of finances.

For K-12 education, schools needing to meet No Child Left Behind requirements will receive $656.5 million and a special education program will receive $622 million.

Manatee County’s share for the No Child requirements is about $5.7 million and it will receive $9.9 million for the special ed programs, according to the House Committee on Education and Labor Web site.

Nearly $31 million will go into the state’s education technology grants. But how the stimulus funds will trickle into local classrooms remains unclear.

Manatee administrators have not talked to Florida Department of Education officials yet because details on the package have been skimpy.

“I’m really anxious to see what kind of funding they are going to give us. I am anxious to see what kind of language comes with it as far as how we can utilize it,” said School Board Chairman Walter Miller. “Hopefully, it’s directed more to employing people rather than buying expensive programs.”

Teachers also are waiting to see how it will affect their schools. Michael Brooks, a science teacher at Southeast High, knows his school is in dire need of funds. With enrollment shrinking, Southeast High faces the possibility of losing elective offerings.

“I hope for teaching funds. There’s money for school projects but no money to teach the kids,” he said. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Bob Fletcher, an economics teacher at Manatee High, has a personal interest in the stimulus package.

A veteran teacher of 35 years who expanded the school’s Advance Placement economics program, Fletcher is scheduled to retire this summer.

“I retire on July 1 unless they find money to bring me back,” he said. “They do so much for special ed and the lower 25 percent (struggling students). Even if I were to come back as a half-time teacher, it will meet the need of kids trying to get college credits while still in high school.”

But any help will be much appreciated by the district’s special education department, said Ron Russell, Manatee schools’ director of exceptional student education.

So far, his department has relied on the rollover money from previous years to keep up with the services provided to about 8,000 special education students in the district.

With the federal boost, his department could hire more aides, help pay for more specialists and therapists and teacher training, he said.

“We have to continue to provide services to students,” Russell said. “We did little in the way of training because we were impacted by budget reduction.”

Education, infrastructure help

Money proposed for infrastructure and education are among the strengths in the stimulus, says Michael Loewy, an associate professor in the University of South Florida’s department of economics.

Loewy said that’s because their investments will earn a rate of return that will help pay off the billions spent to provide improvements in transportation and schools.

The stimulus proposes $46 billion for transportation projects that would include $27 billion for highway and bridge construction and repair.

“That’s a form of investment that’s no different in many ways than a private investment,” Loewy said. “It’s no different than a business borrowing to buy profits it can use to pay off what it borrows.”

Education, Loewy said, is a human capital investment.

The stimulus plan is proposing $47 billion in state fiscal relief to prevent cuts in state aid.

“It’s what is called a human capital investment, in that there’s potential for higher income earned in the future if you have more education,” Loewy said.

A $115 billion expenditure to provide a $400 tax credit per-worker and $800 may not be as effective as the government thinks, Loewy said.

“They don’t really do much,” Loewy said “If someone receives a check for $400, they don’t necessarily rush out and spend $400. They pretty much buy down their debt or put it in the bank.”

While the stimulus will provide some relief for the unemployed by extending their benefits through Dec. 31 and increase checks by $25 a week, Loewy said it doesn’t get to the root of the problem.

“This is something easy the government can do, and it kind of looks good and maybe helps out those who are unemployed for really large spells, but in terms of providing means for people to find new employment down the line it really doesn’t do anything,” Loewy said. “The recession has eliminated certain areas of employment, and chances are some of them might not be coming back. So these guys ultimately have the wrong set of job skills.”

Legislators hope for best

State legislators Friday were re-imagining their budget picture with the welcomed billions they expect as Florida’s share of the stimulus package.

“It looks like it’s one-time, one-shot money,” said Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, chosen recently as the new speaker pro tem of the Florida House of Representatives. “It’s not official yet.”

State Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the chairman of the House rules committee, noted that right now the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year sports a “$6 billion hole.” Galvano and Reagan were already mentally recasting the state’s budget picture, a billion here, a billion there.

Money from the federal stimulus bill will hopefully help plug such holes and bring tens of thousands of jobs, Gov. Charlie Crist said during a press conference Friday.

Of the estimated $10 billion Florida will receive, Crist said 28,000 jobs will be created for every $1 billion spent.

The governor calls the plan “a great infusion for Florida.”

Federal money could start flowing here as early as 30 days after President Barack Obama signs the stimulus legislation, Reagan said.

The money is not expected to arrive in a single lump sum, but will find its way into state coffers from as many as five different channels, Reagan said.

Estimates varied as to exactly how much might end up in Manatee County, but County Commissioner Joe McClash said, “It appears Manatee County, if we’re fortunate enough, could have over $30 million worth of projects.”

That number includes projects financed solely by the state in addition to those that Manatee County would do on its own, he emphasized.

It is estimated 7,600 jobs could be created or saved in the 13th Congressional District, which encompasses most of Manatee County, and all of Sarasota, DeSoto and Hardee counties. The figure would be about 8,000 in District 11, covering parts of Manatee County, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who represents the 11th Congressional District, said the package is strategically targeted to avoid layoffs. Other provisions would help make college more affordable and encourage use of modern technology and computers in Florida classrooms.

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