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Stimulus Brings Out City Wish Lists: Neon for Vegas, Harleys for Shreveport

By JENNIFER LEVITZ and PHILIP SHISHKIN

Las Vegas, which by some accounts already glitters, wants $2 million for neon signs.

Boynton Beach, Fla., is looking for $4.5 million for an "eco park" featuring butterfly gardens and gopher tortoises.

And Chula Vista, Calif., would like $500,000 to create a place for dogs to run off the leash.

These are among 18,750 projects listed in "Ready to Go," the U.S. Conference of Mayors' wish list for funding from the stimulus bill moving through Congress. The group asked cities and towns to suggest "shovel ready" projects for the report, which it gave to Congress and the Obama administration.

Although the bulk of proposals are roads, sewers and similar projects, some wouldn't require a shovel at all. The mayors group sees a potential 1.6 million new jobs from the projects, though a few of them wouldn't create any.

Some localities are using a kitchen-sink strategy. "Our approach has been to list everything, because we don't know what the final guidelines will be or what the final dollar amount will be," says Greg MacLean, public-works director in Lincoln, Neb.

Among entries on Lincoln's list is a $3 million environmentally friendly clubhouse for a municipal golf course. "From a public-perception standpoint, I see how it could be an issue," Mr. MacLean says. But, he says, construction would create 54 jobs.

The debate about what is appropriate stimulative spending, now raging in Washington, echoes differences over the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. It built 651,000 miles of roads and 24,300 miles of sewer lines, but was sometimes lambasted because it also paid for murals and battlefield monuments. "That's when the word 'boondoggle' first came into use" in its modern sense, says William Creech, of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

The mayors' $149 billion project list is just one of many circulating in Washington and state capitals. Massachusetts -- which, like other states, will have a say in distributing the money -- has 4,000 project submissions from 51 towns competing for stimulus money. The San Diego Association of Governments came up with 1,043 possible projects in its region.

With their needs acute, some localities are abandoning boosterism, promoting their community as being more run-down than the next town. In central Maine, Pittsfield Mayor Tim Nichols says the roof on a town-owned theater is rickety, potholes are a "pain in the hiney," and underground pipes are so decrepit "you got sewers backing up in cellars and in lawns." Pittsfield would like about $6 million from Washington.

In Randolph, Vt., Town Manager Gary Champy says federal money to fix "old and pockmarked" roads in his town would lift the mood of residents, because "they'd feel like the government was working for them." He adds: "This money isn't going to banks."

Shreveport, La., has $2.3 billion in projects ready to go. Mayor Cedric Glover's priority is repairing roads, but he's also asking $6 million for three aquatic centers with water slides, which he says would improve quality of life and create construction jobs.

And he would like the U.S. to buy Shreveport eight new Harley-Davidson motorcycles for its cops. This item would produce little local hiring, he acknowledges, but "Harley-Davidson is a great American company. Orders coming from municipalities like ours to a company like that certainly would be stimulative."
[Austin, Texas: $886,000 for a 36-hole frisbee golf course] AFP/Getty Images

Austin, Texas wants $886,000 for a 36-hole frisbee golf course

The Conference of Mayors report has about a dozen golf-course-related projects. A lot of cities want to use funds to upgrade parks, such as Chula Vista, with its plans for a dog park that would include shading and fountains. San Bernadino, Calif., wants $1.1 million for park improvements, including a skateboard ramp and two "splash-park installations." City officials in the communities say these aren't their top priorities, but defend the projects as worthwhile.

Austin, Texas, could use $886,000 to build a 36-hole "disc golf" course, for frisbee tossing. It would be "environmentally and financially sustainable." John Hrncir, government-relations officer, says the project list "was put together on very short notice," and "we are not going to submit anything that is questionable when we seek actual funding."

Heather Boushey, a senior economist with Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., says parks and golf courses shouldn't be deemed frivolous if they create jobs and are seen as long-term investments by their cities. She says the flood of proposals underscores a need for transparency in stimulus spending, which officials have promised.

The stimulus bill the House approved last week provides an array of tax cuts and a heavy dose of spending for new roads and bridges, public safety, expanded jobless benefits, food aid, wider broadband service and renovations for schools and public housing. Congress has said funds will be distributed to local governments through existing federal programs, either directly or through the states. Though the House approved an $819 billion bill, the final cost will depend on the Senate's vote and on compromises the House and Senate make.

The House bill envisions a board and inspectors general to review the overall spending. It says governors, mayors or others who make funding decisions will have to post details of each project, such as its purpose and cost, on a special Web site, and certify that it's a good use of taxpayer money.

Las Vegas, in seeking stimulus money for neon, says there's a shortage of glitz off its beaten path. "When people think of Las Vegas, they think of the Strip, of Caesar's Palace," says city spokesman Jace Radke, but he says this project would help revitalize a blighted neighborhood.

As for the eco-park envisioned by Boynton Beach, its parks superintendent, Jody Rivers, says the $4.5 million project would generate jobs, teach residents about environmentally friendly living and highlight nature, such as the "unique gopher tortoises on the site."

Dave Hansen, deputy city manager in Virginia Beach, Va., says localities are seeking funding for "some stuff that's just a Santa Claus wish list." He compiled $1 billion worth of local projects for inclusion in the mayors' report. He calls that a "Holy Grail" list that town officials have now ranked by priority.

A former colonel in the Army Corps of Engineers, Mr. Hansen says the town's top priorities are replacing a 50-year-old bridge ($90 million) and building a pumping station to alleviate flooding ($20 million). Lower on Virginia Beach's list are items like "urban tree canopy protection" for the city ($3.75 million).

Also, $1.8 million to build municipal tennis courts. "Is it a bona fide need? Absolutely," Mr. Hansen says. "Do you want to compare it to replacing a 52-year-old school? Well, probably not."


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Added: Feb-4-2009 Occurred On: Feb-4-2009
By: stranger2ooo
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Tags: stimulus, city, wish list, stimulus, pork, obama, disturbing
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