2009-11-19 / Front Page

Some Say It’s . . . Recovery.Con

Putnam County used in stimulus shell game
by Michael Brendan Dougherty

Screenshot of Recovery.gov Screenshot of Recovery.gov CARMEL, NY:  Recovery.gov, the Obama administration’s attempt at creating transparency in the $787-billion dollar stimulus program, is a transparent failure in Putnam County.

The Federal government claims that when Putnam County purchased five Paratransit vans with $319,000 of federal stimulus funds, 60 jobs were saved. A casual visitor to Recovery. gov might think that those 60 jobs were in Putnam County. But John Lynch, Putnam County’s Commissioner of Planning/Development and Public Transportation, said, “That number of 60 jobs is incorrect.”

In fact, the number of jobs that should appear on the report is not 60, but just 1.54, and those one and a half jobs are actually in New Paris, Indiana. Whether by bureaucratic error, or deliberate maneuvering, the administration has inflated claims of job creation based on Putnam County stimulus spending. Other stimulus-funded projects in Putnam County are riddled with reporting errors and inaccuracies.

Recovery.gov reports that Putnam County has received $1,092,595 of stimulus money for projects, $319,000 of which was dedicated to purchasing five new Paratransit vans, manufactured by Turtletop Busses in Indiana. Lynch told the Courier that the inaccurate number of 60 jobs created by the purchase of vans “counted both the second and third fiscal quarters, when it was only supposed to count the third quarter.” Putnam County officials tried to correct the number before the third quarter report was issued, but were “frozen out of the system” according to Lynch.

The number 60 does not reflect the number of jobs saved only by Putnam county’s expenditure of $319,000; that expenditure would yield an average salary of $5,316 per year. Only when Putnam County’s order of five vehicles was combined with orders from municipalities around the country, which may or may not be using stimulus funds for their purchases, are the 60 jobs at the New Paris plant considered “saved.” It is unknown whether the 60 Turtle Top jobs have been counted several times in the overall report.

According to Lynch, Turtle Top Busses claims that Putnam’s expenditures on busses in the third quarter added up to “a few days, and that comes to 1.54 jobs.”

“These numbers are quite alarming,” State Senator Vincent Leibell said. “They do not seem to have any basis in fact... I’m afraid the only jobs being created are the beancounters added to the payroll in order to keep track of the numbers. It would appear that the beancounters aren’t doing a great job.” Leibell added: “This isn’t accounting, it’s smoke and mirrors.”

“The [reporting] process and the procedure is craziness,” Lynch said. “We went back to Recovery.gov to confirm the numbers, but received an e-mail from them at quarter to five on the last day of reporting, to confirm that it was 1.54, not 60 jobs.” Putnam’s response arrived too late and the already-inflated number of 60 was reported anyway. No correction was made, even after Putnam officials alerted Recovery.gov of the reporting problems.

“The latest report goes to the heart of the fact that the stimulus package did nothing for Main Street throughout the Hudson Valley, and especially Putnam County, where business owners can’t get lines to credit to expand and create jobs, and foreclosures continue to mount,” said Assemblyman Greg Ball. “It leaves a lot of working class people wondering, where did the money go?”

Many of the other projects listed on Recovery. gov relate to local schools. Education related stimulus spending was first dispersed from the federal government to states, and then the states in turn awarded grants based on applications. In Putnam, the Carmel Central School district received over $2.2 million dollars. According to the government’s own reporting, this money has saved and created no jobs whatsoever. Superintendent Dr. James Ryan did not immediately respond to inquiries for this story. But according to other school officials, such numbers on the government’s transparent Web site are inaccurate.

The Brewster Central school district received $1,828,466. “Basically a lot of it went to saving jobs that were slated to be eliminated last spring,” said Assistant Superintendent Timothy Conway. “Then a fair amount of it has gone to help children who are from low socio-economic backgrounds or those who need extra help in school. All of it is going in those areas of direct instruction.”

“I think it is somewhere between ten and twelve [jobs that were saved],” said Conway, “I think they were almost all teachers and one administrative position.” Documentation for these claims was not immediately available, though the Courier has requested it. Asked how long these jobs were off the chopping block, Conway said, “My understanding is the stimulus money is a two year commitment” Asked whether any of the teachers knew that their jobs would have been cut absent the federal money, Conway responded, “No.”

Putnam is not alone; many localities around the country are having difficulty tracking the avalanche of federal dollars, and the jobs “created or saved” by them. Local reporters around the country have found so many inaccuracies in the government’s own reporting that the Obama administration has slashed 60,000 jobs from its recent stimulus report, citing “unrealistic data” as the source of its misreporting.

That “unrealistic data” in the Obama administration’s stimulus report included a Congressional district in Arizona that doesn’t exist. The stimulus report claimed that 30 jobs were created or saved in Arizona’s “15th Congressional District,” with just $761,420 of federal monies. And the data still includes the inflated number of 60 jobs created by Putnam County spending.

But according to Congressman John Hall (NY-19), “Recovery.gov provides an unprecedented level of transparency to the public about where their tax dollars are going and how they are being spent.”

Rep. Hall added that “It not a perfect site and if errors are identified, they are corrected. The bottom line is that the economic recovery package is saving and creating jobs in Putnam County and around the country. Some of these jobs haven’t been reported yet on recovery.gov, but they are having an impact in our community, which is what matters. For instance, Garrison Central School District was able to save four positions with recovery funds, Haldane Central School District saved three positions and Putnam Valley Central School District saved two positions and created three new jobs.”

The federal government’s attempt at transparency has instead created a tangle of conflicting reports and information. This week, after a string of embarrassing stories about inflated job-numbers and a fictional Congressional district, the Obama administration has promised to spend $18 million to rebuild Recovery.gov to make it more accessible and accurate.

In the coming weeks THE PUtNAM COUNtY COURIER will continue to investigate the use of stimulus money in our county and Congressional district, tracking the amount of dollars spent, the jobs created, and the bidding process on shovel-ready projects.

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