Is the Stimulus Helping Flathead Unemployment?

By Beacon Staff

When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed into law in February, national and state officials promised a life raft of job creation to help soften the blow of the economic recession.

In Flathead County, an area plagued with high unemployment, the question is whether the stimulus is fulfilling that promise. According to the federal stimulus tracking Web site, 134.1 full-time jobs have been created or saved in Flathead County. But that number may be inaccurate, according to at least one stimulus fund recipient.

John Grady is a partner in Glacier State Associates, L.P., whose property received a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development contract for subsidized housing in Kalispell. That money, $262,247, came from stimulus funds and Grady was required to file a recipient report detailing the amount of jobs created or saved.

The federal government lists eight jobs created or saved by Glacier State Associates on its Web site, Recovery.gov. Grady said no jobs were affected by the money.

“It really didn’t create anything new,” Grady said. What the money actually did was backfill a funding shortfall from last year, he said.

To track the amount of jobs saved or created by the money, the federal government requires that all recipients file reports detailing employment specifics based on an equation of stimulus-funded hours worked divided by the number of hours that the recipient would consider full time work during a quarter.

With this equation, Grady, who called the reporting process “goofy,” said the numbers posted by Glacier State are overstated.

Other recipients, however, report that the money has made a difference. Flathead County received more than $1.6 million for the new health clinic, reporting that 15.87 jobs were created or saved by the clinic’s expansion.

Ureco, Inc., a Columbia Falls-based construction company, reported saving 16 jobs with the $610,123 it received for work on the Doris Point boat launch, parking lot and campground on the Hungry Horse Reservoir.

David Cheff, co-owner of Ureco, said the project would not have been possible without stimulus funds. The 16 jobs were not new positions, but they kept his crew working. This highlights one of the biggest misconceptions of the stimulus in Montana, Cheff said.

“In reality, it’s saving jobs more than it’s creating,” Cheff said.

The construction workers are still full-time employees, but will have to take a break over the winter because of the weather. The project entails creating a new boat launch at Doris Point measuring 216 feet long by 36 feet wide. There is also a new 70-space parking lot and will be a new 10-site campground. The stimulus money came through the U.S. Forest Service.

HK Contractors, Inc., reported 90 jobs created or saved by stimulus money, the largest in the Flathead. According to the federal Web site, those jobs are based on a stimulus-funded construction contract worth over $10 million for roadwork in Glacier National Park.

Flathead County Commissioner Dale Lauman said he had expected more than 134 jobs to benefit from stimulus monies in the county so far.

“I think it’s been somewhat slow in coming through,” Lauman said. “We’re not seeing the funding I thought would be coming through.”

Lauman called the stimulus a “wait and see” game for the county because the county has already put in an application to the state detailing projects that Lauman hopes will qualify for stimulus funds.

But there is still job potential, Lauman said, because there is still more money to trickle down to the counties from the state level. The U.S. Highway 93 Bypass is a bright spot that Lauman attributes to the stimulus.

“The bypass becoming a reality was due to stimulus,” Lauman said. “That will be the one that will impact the area and we will see people on the ground working.”

The Flathead was hit especially hard by the recession when tourist numbers bottomed out and the local timber industry suffered under a sudden halt in construction projects. In September, the county faced an 8.8 percent unemployment rate, which equals roughly 4,200 people without work. The state’s average unemployment rate is 6.7 percent.

The Montana Legislature voted to accept over $870 million in federal stimulus funds during the 2009 session – money that the White House said should create over 12,000 jobs in the state when all of the it has been spent.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s office reported in the beginning of November that 4,100 jobs either created or saved in the state. Most of those jobs have been in government or education. The federal government reports job numbers over 6,400. Officials in the governor’s office said the difference in the numbers comes from state-tracked money versus federally tracked money.

Jayson O’Neill, deputy communication director for Schweitzer, said the federal government monitors jobs created by federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, in addition to jobs created by state agencies. O’Neill also said projects that have not yet been funded or started will not show employment numbers yet, such as the Kalispell bypass.

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