Local officials: Some stimulus proposals may seem absurd

(Photo/Airventure 2008, Flickr)
(Photo/Airventure 2008, Flickr)
Thornton wants more than $300,000 for a police-dog program. Boulder wants $6 million to upgrade its fleet of hybrid cars into “super hybrids.” Englewood wants $300,000 for a “self-contained breathing apparatus” and $100,000 for a mobile data terminal to replace obsolete equipment.

In the weeks before President Barack Obama signed the $900 billion federal stimulus package into law in Denver, town and city administrators across the country began compiling lists of local projects they hoped would win a share of the money. But many of the projects proposed by Colorado’s cities and municipalities had little to do with job creation or generating revenue and weren’t tailored to meet any special federal criteria. Some local officials readily admit that.

Thornton’s assistant city manager, Joyce Hunt, said that the northern Denver suburb’s dog-program plan might seem absurd as a stimulus project. “It’s not a jobs program,” she said, but the price tag, $301,000, is no exaggeration. “By the time you get the dog and the equipment and the trainer, it adds up real quick.”

How did Thornton’s police-dog plan, which Hunt essentially described as a “Hail Mary” proposal, and other questionable stimulus projects in Colorado end up being submitted for consideration?

“That program like the others, it’s part of our long-term capital plan. All municipalities make these plans, our dream plans. That’s where these [stimulus] proposals came from.”

Hunt said the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which sought proposals in December, simply wanted the federal government to know these programs “were out there.” For Thornton, the wish list also includes road and water development projects and a new crime-analyst position.

“There are infrastructure projects but also public safety projects, projects from all across the board,” Hunt said. What they had in common, she said, was lack of funding.

Hunt said she asked the various city departments in Thornton to compile lists, then she uploaded the proposals to the Conference of Mayors Web site. All of the projects met the Conference of Mayor criteria, she said, which was not directly related to economic stimulus. They were government projects, basically, according to Hunt, and “ready to go.”

Boulder’s assistant city manager, Kara Mertz, said she’s not sure how many jobs would be created by the city’s proposed fleet of 60 “super hybrid” cars. Boulder is asking the federal government for $6 million in stimulus funding for the project, which would be part of the city’s smart-grid development with Xcel Energy. Xcel Energy may provide matching funds. The project proposal lists a zero in the job creation category.

“I think Xcel did some job projections,” Mertz said.

Xcel spokesman Tom Henley said the company has not conducted local job projections but Boulder’s “super hybrid” project would be a key part of the larger national smart grid development plan, which he said would employ an estimated 280,000 people.

Mertz said it costs about $60,000 to convert each hybrid vehicle into a “super hybrid.” The money would pay for a double conversion: first to plug-in technology and then to include an inverter, or so-called vehicle-to-grid (v2g) technology that allows power from the vehicles to flow back into the city’s shared power source.

“This phase of the project is about testing the technology,” said Mertz. “You find out where the problems are to then expand it and include manufacturers so the costs go down.”

Mertz says there are two local companies that would carry out the conversions, Hybrids Plus in Boulder and Spirae in Fort Collins.

“We can only convert one car at a time the way we’re set up now,” said Meg Graham, administrator at Spirae. “We’d likely contract it out if we end up doing all 60 cars.”

Graham said Spirae has heard nothing concrete yet from Boulder or Xcel, so the plan is theoretical for now. But she said the $60,000-per-car conversion figure sounds right.

“We’re in the research and development phase so the prices slide. Inverter technology is really accelerating. There are three or four U.S. companies doing it and with this we’re ahead of Europe. If one of these companies gets a contract with us to make a lot of inverters, you know the price just drops like crazy,” she said.

Mertz said looking at the cost of the cars is the wrong way to look at the project. She said the roughly $2 million left over after the proposed price of the car conversions is what counts.

“Testing the cars and grid and how they work together, how efficiently [they] give power back,” she said, that’s the value of the project. “The work that will get us to Phase Three… The benefit [of our proposal] will come ultimately from the work [billed] as ‘ancillary costs.'”