While the public debates the necessity of the $787 billion nationwide stimulus money package, economists are adamant the money was necessary — and what has kept El Paso County on life support.
“Think about a heart attack patient — you know he needs to lose weight, start exercising, stop smoking,” said Tucker Hart Adams, economist with the Adams Group. “But those are long term goals. In the short term, you just want to keep him alive. That’s what this was about.”
About $340 million has been helping to keep El Paso County alive. That’s how much the county has received thus far. More will come when Colorado’s remaining share of $7 billion is dispersed.
And, while no local economists would describe the county’s economic situation as ideal, some say it’s what gotten us through the worst downturn in memory.
“Was it necessary? Absolutely,” Adams said. “We were in the worst situation since the 1930s, and we had to do something to keep the economy from going that direction. Was it done exactly right? No. But there’s always room for improvement as you learn what works.”
Higher education was one area that benefited from the money, said Colorado State University economist Ron Phillips.
“A lot of the colleges’ budgets were backfilled with stimulus money,” he said. “And that stopped both tuition increases and layoffs. And it wouldn’t have been the tenured professors who got laid off. It would have been the adjunct faculty, and so much of the staff. It was definitely important to the higher institutions.”
Many people question the logic of spending so much federal money when the country’s deficit is at record highs — Phillips and Adams both say the recession would have been much deeper without it.
“We’re talking huge cuts in lots of areas,” Phillips said. “I have written about the 1930s financial crisis, and one of the ideas at that time was to print money and hand it out to people to spend. It would have worked then, just as this stimulus is working now. The idea is basically good.”
The country needed the bailout money, and the stimulus package, Adams said. Without it, the nation could have seen an unemployment rate double that of the 10 percent high during 2009.
“You can’t just put nearly $800 billion into the economy and not have an impact,” she said. “It did create jobs — it’s hard to tell if the government numbers are correct, but it did at least save jobs.”
Adams said the construction project at Woodmen Road and Academy Boulevard — which received $35 million — is an example of stimulus money at work. The project is a multi-year, multi-stage construction plan to ease traffic on the two roads. Crews are working to widen Woodmen, as well as create an interchange.
“That project was going to happen, sooner or later,” she said. “It’s just that those jobs were needed now — not three years from now. Three years from now, they might not need the government money to find jobs. And of course, that’s not a project that’s going to wrap up this year — that money is going to be extended for several years.”
El Paso County is likely to receive even more federal money during the next two years.
The money is part of $7 billion promised the state from the roughly $787 billion stimulus package passed last year. Much of that money — nearly 60 percent — has yet to be doled out to states for projects that promise to create jobs.
El Paso County’s share included $87 million for military projects, $64 million for work force development and $50 million for transportation projects. The rest of the money went to federal contracts, education, public safety, housing, health care and energy projects.
The local share ranks third among counties in Colorado: Denver received $695 million and Boulder received $489 million.
The rural counties, such as Washington, received about $4.5 million, while Summit County — home to many of the state’s ski resorts — received $81 million, most of that for transportation projects.
Some of the money was used to hire two police officers for three years for the Colorado Springs Police Department.
Monument, Fountain and Manitou Springs also received law enforcement grants.
Colorado Springs received a high-impact technology grant to create a police information technology position.
The district attorney’s office was able to retain six staff members, and add an additional staff member with $824,438 in stimulus money.
Gov. Bill Ritter set up a government program to track stimulus money. His office said that the state’s agencies also spent $622 million in money from the recovery act — not including money spent inside the counties.
More than 7,200 state workers in corrections, education, public safety, construction and the energy sector kept working because of the money, the governor’s office said.
“Going forward, the impact of the recovery act funds will grow exponentially,” said a report outlining the state’s use of the money. “State agencies are using the funds to help support struggling Coloradans and to advance long-term infrastructure projects.”
The state used the money to increase unemployment benefits, for airport projects, increase food stamp benefits and to provide federal contracts to business and local agencies.
Other projects covered by stimulus money used for statewide programs include increases in welfare payments to low-income families, child care assistance, child support enforcement and adoption assistance.
“Colorado residents have seen a host of direct benefits,” the report said. “Roughly 1.8 million families are saving $900 million through the making work pay tax cut. More than 500,000 Coloradans received an extra $250 from the Social Security Administration and about 52,000 low-income college students will receive up to$500 more in tuition assistance.”
While the money has been allocated, it might not have been spent on specific projects.
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