18 Months Later: Recovery Act’s Impact on the Flathead

By Beacon Staff

The effectiveness of the $787-billion federal stimulus bill is among the more politically loaded topics of this midterm election season. Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, who has long been an opponent of the stimulus and is seeking reelection, pointed in a July 20 release to an e-mail survey he conducted that found a majority of respondents believe the economy is worse than when the stimulus passed, and that it actually hurt the economy.

But regardless of one’s opinion of the stimulus, officially called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, its tangible impacts on local economies can sometimes be hard to see. The ongoing construction of the Kalispell bypass is one obvious major project where stimulus dollars allowed work to get underway this summer. As for some of the less apparent uses, nonprofit investigative journalism group ProPublica has compiled a massive “Recovery Tracker,” that allows for searching how stimulus dollars were spent in every county in the United States – and some of its findings are surprising.

Out of the $1.7 billion Montana received in stimulus, Flathead County has been allocated $123,644,153, according to ProPublica. In terms of stimulus spending per capita, Montana received $1,744, well above the national average of $1,170. Flathead County came down in between, receiving $1,398 per person.

But the list of recipients that used or benefited from stimulus funding in Flathead County is long and varied, ranging from school districts to logging outfits. Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana (CAP), which administers various social and economic assistance programs, is among the biggest recipients of stimulus dollars. According to Jane Nolan, ARRA oversight officer, CAP has so far spent roughly $4.75 million out of the $6.75 million it is obligated, on approximately 1,500 clients.

Those programs include a weatherization service that has helped residents of 158 homes improve energy efficiency and reduce heating and other bills. CAP also co-sponsored Homeless Connect, on June 9, an event aimed at helping the homeless by offering medical care, counseling, food and other assistance. An attorney is now on staff at CAP, paid for by stimulus dollars, to provide free legal advice to those with questions on landlord-tenant issues, bankruptcy or other inquiries.

“We’re really proud of that,” Nolan said. “That program did not exist before the stimulus.”

Nor did the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing program, which Nolan said has helped some 370 people in danger of falling into homelessness stay in their homes through helping with utility, rent or deposit payments, exist prior to the stimulus. A new subsidized employment program, that paid for job training in fields like nurses’ assistants or commercial truck drivers, has put 46 people to work, Nolan said. And the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, in partnership with the City of Kalispell, buys foreclosed homes – 15 so far – and establishes community land trusts to renovate and put the homes on the market at affordable rates.

Dozens of businesses, from dentists’ offices to coffee shops, are listed on ProPublica’s spreadsheet for obtaining loans through the Small Business Administration they wouldn’t have been able to get in the private credit marketplace. Among those was a $1.2 million loan for Bitney’s Furniture and Appliances Inc.

Sid Bitney, president of Bitney’s Furniture, said it was simply a loan taken out in November 2009 through Three Rivers Bank, but having a portion of it guaranteed by the SBA allowed for better terms on the deal.

“Because of the economy, having a lower payment and spread out longer helped in our payment structure,” Bitney said.

John King, president and CEO of Three Rivers Bank, said loans to Bitney’s and others like it, backed up almost entirely by the SBA with no fees, have allowed Three Rivers to become the third largest SBA lender in Montana in the second quarter of 2010.

“This made the SBA very attractive for the banks who used it,” King said. “It gave us another arrow in the quiver to help with a loan to get people into business or keep them in their business.”

King now supports an effort underway in Congress to keep the program in place, even if SBA raises its fees slightly, since he believes it has facilitated business lending for banks and entrepreneurs.

Darlene Schottle, superintendent of Kalispell’s School District 5, said the roughly $3.2 million it has been awarded in stimulus funds have been used for everything from purchasing heating and cooling units for Flathead High to hiring on additional, temporary educators to help high school students in danger of dropping out graduate on time.

A large chunk of the City of Kalispell’s $1.8 million in stimulus will pay for renovations of the downtown fire station, and a new roof and heating and cooling system for the police station and city court. Other grants will pay to staff three firefighters for a two-year period and a new police cruiser. City Manager Jane Howington said many of the grants Kalispell applied for existed pre-stimulus, but may have had more funding available as a result of the ARRA.

While this is a mere sampling of local beneficiaries, the list illustrates that, right or wrong, the stimulus has impacted the Flathead. Whether it was worth it’s price tag, however, remains debatable. For the more info and the full list on ProPublica, visit: http://projects.propublica.org/recovery/locale/montana/flathead#top300.

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