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Beltrami County Board: County road project to get stimulus funds

Beltrami County continues to pay close attention to a growing number of money pots in Washington, D.C., to fund possible county projects.

"Every day is a new experience," County Administrator Tony Murphy told county commissioners this week. "It is unprecedented since the New Deal era, as the economic stimulus is funneled to the states."

Beltrami County has a list of projects it would like to see funded, including a $3.5 million jail efficiency project that could seen "green" energy dollars.

But Murphy said there is apparently at least one road project will be funded -- paving of County Road 23 north of Turtle Lake.

The $1 million 4.8 mile project north of Gull Lake is slated for 2010 and involves $675,000 in federal aid.

"Some stimulus money is being held back and distributed by programs," Murphy said. "The question is, how do we access that funding? For money not going through the states, no one knows."

David Turch, president of Turch & Associates, the Washington, D.C., lobbyist hired by the county, doesn't know either. Neither does anyone else in Washington.

Congress passed and the president signed into law a $787 billion economic stimulus package, which should see about $9 billion going to the state of Minnesota for various programs from roads and bridges to a federal match for Medicaid and Medical Assistance to individual tax relief.

"Much of the money that will come down that will be available to you in the stimulus bill will come by formula to the states," Turch told commissioners Tuesday in a telephone conference call. "You'll be dealing with the state -- Health and Human Services, MnDOT -- that will be formula."

Much of the rest of the money, "and we're not even certain in Washington yet exactly where the dollars go, are program funds," he said. "They will be issued through a grants process by the executive branch agencies in Washington."

But, says Turch, the officials that will make those funding decisions have yet to be appointed by the Obama administration.

"The difficulty with that right now is that Obama has filled most of the Cabinet spots, or least made the nominations, second, third, fourth and fifth-level people are not in place who have to make the decisions about the procedures and how this is going to be allocated," Turch said.

Turch's staff is making contacts with agencies with programs that might be appropriate for the county's projects, including lists of program managers.

"It's a place for us to start," he said, "and at lest give us a point of contact. In Minnesota, we're somewhat disadvantaged at the moment as we're missing one senator. ... It's a disadvantage but it's not an insurmountable obstacle."

There are three other vehicles, he noted, as Congress moves through 2009 and 2010 appropriations bills and it works on the next major six-year transportation funding bill. Several Beltrami County highway projects could be in the latter, as it involves federal funding and the Chippewa National Forest.

Other Beltrami County projects seeking funds include a $400,000 County Highway Department building energy project, public safety radio network funds, funding a domestic violence intervention project and a $3.5 million remonumentation project.

Key to the transportation bill are Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chair their respective transportation panels in the House and Senate.

"Neither have announced deadlines for submission of projects, and that's different that what they had hoped to do," Turch said. Now, Oberstar's panel may have a bill out in May or June, and the final date for a bill is expected by Oct. 1.

"The stimulus bill was supposed to be infrastructure development," he said. "The actual amounts are something shy of 10 percent. Much of the rest of it goes for social program development, greening of America. All of those things will offer opportunities for you."

Turch also believes projects will be added much as before, even though the Obama administration with bills it proposes wants no added earmarks.

But one legislator's earmark is another's appropriation request, with both meaning the same thing -- a specific project added to a spending bill.

"I absolutely believe that earmarks are going to be ... a part of the 2010 appropriations," he said. "Earmarks are in the eye of the beholder, and really in the eye of the definition. ... It means different things to different people."

The 2009 appropriations bill was loaded with earmarks, he said, and the stimulus bill also contained some.

"It wasn't the rhetoric that prohibited earmarks, it was time," Turch said. "There was simply no time to vet any kind of specific project to be included in the bill. The bill got signed anyway."

Turch predicted the same thing for the 2010 spending bill. "Oberstar objects to earmarks as a matter of substance, however under my definition, I think that highway bill is almost entirely earmarks. If the definition of earmark is specificity to a locality or an institution, that's the entire transportation bill."

"Call it what they will, the hope is that we'll get the money that we need for the projects that we have," said Commissioner Joe Vene.

Murphy said any vehicle in any committee that may carry Beltrami County projects is being considered. "If we can, we'll try to get a dog in every hunt."

Beltrami County will also work through the county's state legislators to see what the county can gain through the money given to states and distributed by a formula.

Commissioners also held a conference call with Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and hoped she could work for funding the $3.5 million jail efficiency project.

"We don't know yet whether the governor will approve any kind of a bonding bill at this session," Olson said. "This isn't normally a bonding year, but in the Economic Development Committee I sit on, we are hearing some bonding projects and putting together a smaller bonding bill that would be specifically jobs oriented with shovel-ready projects in it."

She urged the commissioners to send jail project specs to her so a placeholder bill could be quickly drafted. "It's certainly an effort worth making, and we have nothing to lose."