Fed Tracking Site for Stimulus Money Contains S.C. Usage Errors

8:03 AM, Jul 26, 2013   |    comments
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Ron Barnett, Greenville News

If you believe the web-based system the federal government set up to track the flow of stimulus money, more than $46 million has been awarded since 2009 to local and state agencies and other entities in South Carolina that haven't done a thing with it.

Don't believe it.

Some of the 75 projects listed as approved for funding but "not started" actually haven't started. But most of the ones checked by GreenvilleOnline.com are underway or complete, according to the agencies involved.

How much of that $46 million actually remains unspent is unclear.

The errant records are the product of a reporting system that was created to offer the public an unprecedented level of transparency into implementation of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly called the stimulus.

Nancy DiPaolo, spokeswoman for the board that oversees implementation of ARRA, said the errors aren't the federal government's fault - and are really not a big deal.

The numbers that show up in the system are entered by the recipients of the grants, contracts and loans, not by the federal government, she said.

The federal agencies that the stimulus money flowed through keep tabs on the status of the projects, she said. And while they are supposed to check the reporting system, www.Recovery.gov, and tell the recipients when they see errors, it's up to the recipients to fix the errors.

"This thing is, overall, quite accurate, DiPaolo told GreenvilleOnline.com.

"The reason nobody's gone crazy over it is because it's easy to see what the mistake is," she said. "It should be corrected, but you can tell there's no fishy thing going on here."

It may be easy enough to find the mistakes if you're willing to sort through hundreds of Web pages searching for double entries and inaccurate project codes in the database that tracks the $4.6 billion awarded to South Carolina.

Slipping through the cracks

For example, the state Department of Transportation was listed as having been awarded more than $18.7 million for four projects that haven't started.

Those are among 195 projects totaling more than $500 million that the spreadsheet indicates that the agency has been awarded -- but that includes some accidental double entries. How much has actually been awarded to the agency isn't clear from the website.

How many errors there may be throughout the reporting system in projects that are listed as complete, less than 50 percent complete or more than 50 percent complete, would be difficult to determine.

Department of Transportation spokesman Bob Kudelka said the status of those projects listed as not started was "misreported."

"If you dig deeper into the website, you will see where the funds have been expended," he said.

The biggest item listed as not started on the spreadsheet of all stimulus outlays in the state was a $10 million project on U.S. 17 in Charleston. Kudelka said the item in question was "a duplicate entry."

Another entry on what Kudelka said is the same project shows that the Department of Transportation has received more than $7 million of the $10 million award and the job is more than 50 percent completed.

The Greenville Transit Authority, which operates Greenlink, the city's bus system, is listed as having been awarded a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation through the stimulus program for a project that hasn't yet started.

Mark Rickards, transit director for Greenlink, said all but $2,000 of the $1.2 million has been spent to buy new buses in Mauldin and Simpsonville last year.

"It was an accounting error by us," he said. "We did it on our end."

But the congressional office that was overseeing the grant kept close tabs on how the money was used, he said. "They were very strict on that."

Another stimulus grant that Rickards said has been completed was used to buy seven additional buses and build more than 60 shelters - all marked with the ARRA logo. It's listed as "more than 50 percent complete."

Among the largest projects listed as not started, but which officials say are actually finished, is one funded through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via two contracts to Native American Services Corp. totaling $3.6 million.

Russ Wicke, a spokesman for the Army Corps' Savannah District, said the project was completed in August 2010.

A $1.8 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant listed as having been made to Berkeley County for a project that hasn't started apparently should have listed the state Department of Transportation as the recipient, said Kace Smith, deputy county supervisor.

Two other entries for Berkeley County were bewildering. One was for a grant and another for a federal contract, both from the Department of Justice, both for the same amount, $285,898.

"I think the grant is completed," Smith said, "but why they show on that one line that a contract is not started, I don't know."

St. Paul's Fire District in Charleston County received a $1.68 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security that was listed as "not started."

Charles Riddle, health and safety officer for the department, said the money was used to build a fire station that was completed in late 2011.

Closer to home, Clemson University and the Clemson University Foundation are listed as having been awarded two grants from the National Science Foundation and one from the U.S. Department of Education totaling $673,308 for projects that haven't started.

University spokeswoman Robin Denny said the projects have started.

The NSF awards are being used to expand the state's Cyberinstitute, a high-speed, high-capacity fiber optic network that now connects Clemson, the Medical University of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina. The expansion will add connections to Benedict College, South Carolina State University, Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College and Clemson's Edisto Research Extension Center, according to Clemson documents.

It also will provide enhanced video communications at Benedict, South Carolina State, Claflin University, USC Beaufort, MUSC and USC Columbia.

The Department of Education grant was for a work-study program that employs students, Denny said.

According to www.Recovery.gov, Clemson received 52 ARRA awards totaling $90.8 million.

Slow starters

Some of the projects listed as "not started," indeed haven't started or were abandoned.

A $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been awarded to Darlington County but work is yet to begin on a watershed drainage project, according to County Administrator Dale Surrett.

The work has been held up while the county works through getting the required permits from the Corps of Engineers that will allow it to run a channel through a wetlands area, he said.

Also, water-quality permits from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control are yet to be completed, he said.

"We're hoping in the near future to get it moving along, but anytime that you operate in an area that involves wetlands, it's highly regulated," Surrett said.

The project had a deadline for this year, but the county was granted an extension through Sept. 30, 2014, he said.

Another award, a $1.9 million loan that had been approved by USDA for the Richland Community Health Care Association, which was a free medical clinic in Columbia, was "de-obligated" in 2012, as was a $400,000 grant, according to USDA spokesman Wayne Maloney.

USDA handed out $21.2 billion in ARRA funds for rural development nationwide, according to the agency. Most of those projects are at or beyond the halfway completion mark, a similar level of progress as seen in infrastructure projects awarded through other programs, according to the USDA.

As of spring 2013, ARRA funds awarded through USDA, according to the department, have:

• Assisted 93,000 rural families with homeownership;

• Helped build or improve 65 fire stations and 12 police stations serving 2.8 million citizens;

• Constructed or renovated 180 healthcare facilities serving 3.5 million people;

• Built or improved 312 cultural and educational facilities, including 196 libraries, serving 4.2 million people;

• Provided improved broadband access through the investment of $3.5 million in infrastructure;

• And assisted 2,600 small rural businesses through loan and grant programs, creating or saving more than 48,000 American jobs.

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