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Waste Watch: Tracking your stimulus dollars

Updated: Wednesday, July 10 2013, 03:27 PM EDT

As part of our new Waste Watch series, we're tracking your federal stimulus dollars. In 2009, the federal government passed the stimulus with a promise that the dollars would create jobs and would be easy to track.

So how easy to track is it? It turns out many projects are not updated, and project managers have not reported job totals in many cases.

We wanted to see how user-friendly the government tracking website, recovery.gov, is for the average taxpayer. 

One benefit is an interactive map that allows users to zoom in to any zip code in the country and see how many stimulus projects happened there. 

Each project is marked on the map, with information on the cost of the project, its completion status, and the name of the recipient.

But descriptions of the projects tend to be convoluted or nonexistent. 

In fact, 13WHAM News had to call the recipients of dozens of stimulus grants just to understand what the money was being spent on.

"We're all taxpayers, and we have no problem with people asking questions," said Ken Nelson, Director of School Facilities for the Rush-Henrietta district.

R-H is an example where the money checks out cleanly, with the tax dollars being spent exactly as intended. 

Their energy efficiency project is a good example. The district received roughly $220,000 and kicked in $50,000 on their own.

The result was a $270,000 project that upgraded the district's lights; they hired a local crew for five months to perform the installation of motion-detectors and other equipment.

"The project has already proven to save the district quite a bit of money," Nelson explained. "We're saving on an annual basis 600,000 kilowatt hours. That's equivalent to $45,000 a year in savings."

That means this project will pay for itself in six years.

The Monroe County Water Authority received nearly $24 million for the construction of its new Webster facility, slated to open later this year. Director Nick Noce says the stimulus money helped prevent a rate increase for thousands of customers. Beyond that, the project provided for the hiring of dozens of local workers over several years. It's a project that is easy to track in terms of how the money was spent and where the hiring happened, but it hasn't been without some problems. In 2011, a worker died in an underground accident while working on the tunnel portion of the project. OSHA fined the contractor $55,000 after discovering seven violations. Since April 2011, crews have been on schedule and the project remains on pace to open in 2013.

Many school district and transportation projects checked out in similar fashion. Where it gets murky is in the form of research grants and jobs numbers.

For example, Cornell University received a grant for nearly $300,000 for a research project focusing on the domestication and roots of household dogs. The purpose of the study and the potential job creation from such research is unclear, and we asked Cornell to explain. We're awaiting word from the University, and will pass on their explanation when they send it to 13 WHAM.

The recovery.gov site makes it difficult to track job numbers in other ways, too. Some projects are listed as not requiring a job report; other project reports are incomplete.

13 WHAM News will continue to follow the flow of stimulus dollars. You can submit your questions or suggestions by emailing us at wastewatch@13wham.com. In the weeks and months to come, we'll show more of what we've found.

Waste Watch: Tracking your stimulus dollars


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