05/19/09 — Local leaders gather in Kinston to hear economic stimulus plans

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Local leaders gather in Kinston to hear economic stimulus plans

By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 19, 2009 1:46 PM

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Gov. Bev Perdue speaks to community leaders about possible uses for the federal stimulus funding -- and how communities can take advantage of the funds -- Monday in Kinston.

KINSTON -- A summer employment program for disadvantaged youths, a new community college program of accelerated training, an emphasis on "green" and transportation projects were highlighted by representatives from seven state departments Monday morning at Lenoir Community College during the third in a series of six economic recovery workshops being held across the state.

About 100 people were on hand to learn about the assortment of programs and to hear Gov. Beverly Perdue.

Gov. Perdue spoke for about 10 minutes before turning the program over to Dempsey Benton, director of the Office of Economic Recovery and Investment.

Benton provided an overview of economy efforts in the state then called on a panel of state officials to provide more specific information about their departments and their part in the recovery efforts. They provided contact information, deadlines and Web site information.

Wayne County Manager Lee Smith said he had been familiar with most of what was said Monday. With Smith were commission Chairman Bud Gray, Vice Chairman Jack Best and finance officer Pam Holt. Also attending were Goldsboro Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Allen and City Manager Joe Huffman.

Smith called the recovery act issue a "kind of a phantom" in which people "hear all kinds of ideas and thoughts."

"This made it a little more tangible," he said. "You now have a face and an office to place with the energy issues or workforce development. You know who to call, that is helpful. It is good contact information and they talked about how much money is out there.

"We heard a couple of times this morning that processes are not in place. A lot of process for local governments or who may even be eligible to apply for these monies are not in place. One thing I hope people heard today is that the state and federal governments are using existing programs to channel this money. I think it is appropriate as opposed to creating new offices and new programs."

Some of those programs utilize existing criteria, he said.

"But from what I am seeing they (federal government) are tightening the criteria," he said. "I think that is what we should have been doing all along, but she (Gov. Perdue) is, I think, trying to make the point of the accountability to the taxpayers because people are really concerned about money being passed to governments and the federal bailout to these large company."

Gov. Perdue left the heavy lifting to Benton and the department representatives, devoting her time instead to attempting to balance bad economic news with some encouraging signs.

"Although it sounds like a lot of money it is not enough to patch the holes," she said. "We all know there are tough choices between now and July 1. My wish is today that when you walk away you will at least feel comfortable knowing there is a phone number and e-mail."

She pledged support for those who lack the resources to do the applications.

"The goal of Congress was to put people to work," she said. "Jobs now, that is what it is all about, jobs now. North Carolina has one of the highest unemployment rates we have seen in our history."

That rate is statewide and affects "every single community," she said.

"Those people standing in the unemployment line are unlike any other people we have seen in lines before," she said. "The good news is this is North Carolina and don't forget it. I feel like there is a glimmer of hope for recovery. I feel better than I have in a long time.

"New unemployment figures are coming out this week. You won't feel elated, but you will feel a little bit more secure. We understand there is a little bit of uptick in the economy."

She said the criteria for every dollar spent will be "efficiency, transparency and accountability."

"The deadlines are past," she said. "You don't have time to sit around, you don't have six to eight weeks. You have to decide what is best for your people and then move on.

"Every single dollar of this federal money, every single dollar the state of N.C. spends and invests is up on the Web. There won't be any contract done ever in the back room ever in N.C.."

She told the audience that following a recent meeting of the nation's governors that President Barack Obama "laid it out on the table" by saying, "let me tell you all, Republican, Democrat, it does not matter if I find one of you messing up, you will be held accountable. Do not worry, that will not be N.C."

In his comments, Benton said the stimulus was purpose rather than place driven.

"The stimulus' objectives are to stabilize state budgets, create jobs, provide a safety net for the most vulnerable of citizens, such as through the Food Stamp program, and the major driving force is to create jobs," he said.

The package provides a total of $789.5 billion in spending and tax cuts over two years. Of that total, $225 billion will be distributed to state and local governments using a funding formula. North Carolina will receive an estimated $6.1 billion.

Smith noted that many of the programs are not giveaways, but rather are loans. However, local government should exercise caution in applying for the funds.

"I think we have to be real careful in that you heard several times today by at least four of the speakers this is one-time money, it is not coming back," he said. "In my mind, you have got to have something that is a high priority for your community, but also has to be something you can find a sustainable revenue source in the future, or if it is one-time money, build something with it that will not take money in the future."

Smith said he liked the summer job program and the accelerated community college program, both of which "could be picked up in other ways" once the stimulus funding is expended.

The summer youth employment program will target 6,000 youths ages 12-24, said Roger Shackelford, executive director for Workforce Development, N.C. Department of Commerce. It is expected to start June 1.

The "12 in 6" accelerated community college program would allow people to earn certificates in six months in any of the 12 jobs in high demand.

"The goal is to get as many in class as we can," he said. "As the economy recovers, the better hope we have to improve the pipeline of qualified employees."

Department of Transportation District 3 engineer Neil Lassiter noted that 11 projects put out for bid in March had come in at 19 percent below projections. Bids in April for nine other projects came in 17 percent below projections.

Those savings, he said, could mean other smaller projects could be done.

Lassiter said the DOT works with Municipal Planning Organizations and Rural Planning Organizations and its industry partners to identify transportation needs.

Even with the workshop, some items are still not clear.

For example, Paul LeSieur, director of school business for the Department of Public Instruction, mentioned the possible use of low-interest bond monies for school improvements. However, it was unclear as to whether he was referring to a local or state bonds, Smith said.