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White House Recovery Act Implementation Conference for Local Officials

Page history last edited by Faye Anderson 11 years, 7 months ago

WHITE HOUSE PRESS RELEASE

March 16, 2009

 

White House to Hold Recovery Act Implementation Conference for Local Officials

 

Washington, DC – On Wednesday, March 18th, the White House will hold a Recovery and Reinvestment Act Implementation Conference for local officials.  Like state governments, city and county governments will play a crucial role in partnering with the federal government to ensure that implementation of the Recovery Act is effective, transparent and efficient.

 

Similar to last week’s conference for states, this day-long conference will be a chance for local officials to bring forward ideas and share best practices, as well as hear presentations from a number of Administration officials, including Earl Devaney, Chairman of the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board.

 

ARRA Conference with State and Local officials - Pool Report No. 1

 

Highlights:

 

The Vice President spoke for 31 minutes, starting about 11:12 a.m., to the 130 or so city and county officials gathered in EEOB Room 450.

 

Earlier in the morning Earl Devaney, chairman of the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board (RAT Board), spoke and took questions. Also during the morning session, officials from Commerce, HUD, HHS and Energy departments spoke and took questions.

 

I assume transcript is still to come of Biden, so check these quotes against it, but here are a few highlights from his half-hour speech:

 

The VP said one problem that often blocks infrastructure from getting built is local opposition, and people blocking projects using laws and regulations to tie them up. He told urged the officials not to block progress by engaging in NIMBY.

 

"Please don't engage in, and educate your public so there's not this 'not in my back yard, not here.' In for a dime, in for a dollar, folks."

 

The VP took a swipe at states that are considering rejecting some money, but who still sent a representative to last week's conference for state recovery act coordinators.

 

He repeated last week's admonition that just because it's legal to spend money on something, doesn't mean it should be funded through this money — and mentioned swimming pools, tennis courts, golf courses and frisbee parks as examples.

 

"I'll show up in your city and say this is a stupid idea. You think I'm kidding — this is the only part the president was right about - don't mess with Joe."

 

He officially announced what you all already have paper on — the $100 million from HHS stimulus money for food assistance to the low-income elderly.

 

He also had an amusing section at the beginning where he told the officials they either had already heard from, or were about to hear from, Cabinet secretaries. Evan Ryan, who runs Intergovernmental Affairs for the VP, informed him that in fact it was just representatives from each department. The VP joked that the group must not have rated the big guns, prompting groans from the audience.

 

The vice president had a teleprompter, though it appeared he was only partly speaking from it and frequently ad-libbed.

 

Here are the details of the rest of the conference morning session, which ran from just after 9 a.m. to about 12:50 p.m.

 

Leading off was Devaney, who said he's still trying to get his office up and running and said he has no phones and no office space. For now, he's still working out of the Interior Department IG's office.

 

* He talked about his vision for the Web site:

 

"My vision here is that every reporter in America will wake up and click on this site and be looking for problems. They've already started, by the way.

 

He said they are getting 3,900 hits per second at Recovery.gov. He said the Web site right now is still controlled by OMB but will be transferred over in 35 to 40 days.

 

"That's going to generate for all of us, you included, inquiries - hey, why did this toilet cost whatever."

 

* He repeatedly warned that reporters will be watching the local officials as they spend the money.

 

* He stressed the challenge of data collection, saying they will have to come up with uniform ways to track and measure the spending and its results.

 

* He said there is no money in the stimulus bill for state/local auditors, but said conversations are going on with Capitol Hill to try to address that need.

 

"You all didn't get any money to do that. Somebody's going to have that discussion later, it's not going to be me. I'm not down the other end of this street here that actually passed the act."

 

"I think attention has been drawn to this issue and people on the Hill are thinking about what they might be able to do."

 

* He said the audit community needs to try to change to preventing fraud at the front-end, rather than the law enforcement side of catching folks after they have committed the fraud: "This is crime prevention, not crime detection."

 

He said they are looking at the way IGs handled Hurricane Katrina spending as a model to show them how to coordinate accountability with state and local governments.

 

He said he would like to see a zero-tolerance policy for mistakes, which he said was part of the Katrina spending. He also said he will push for a Justice Department task force "that's assigned to do nothing but work with these recovery funds."

 

He repeated his admonition from last week that there will be some level of waste and fraud with stimulus money.

 

Among the 20 or so questions he fielded were concerns about data security, the way jobs will be measured, what waivers will be available, and how auditors will view cities and counties that are already downsizing but also asking for grants.

 

Having sat through half of last week's conference with state officials, I can say that the city and county folks had many of the same questions about measurements and accountability, though the state folks had far more questions about flow of information from the federal government, and about timelines for applying for money. The cities and counties, by contrast, were most interested in what sources of money would be available to them specifically to apply for.

 

Stephen Dinan

The Washington Times

 

Pool Report on Afternoon Session of Recovery Act City/County Officials Conference

 

Spans from 1:37 p.m. to 5:42 p.m.

 

News - Minimal. Several agencies detailed how recovery funds would be spent and outlined deadlines and application processes. Some warned about spending the money properly. Also, VPOTUS aide Evan Ryan (intergovernmental affairs) came to give the local officials a phone number Biden had promised to give out during the event earlier. "You can reach us, he really means it," Ryan told the group.

 

Color - A few jokes from presenters about the need for caffeine and stretching in the highly air conditioned EEOB Room 450. One man in the back row repeatedly nodded off in his seat and then left halfway through afternoon session.

 

The presentations were technical, quite detailed and accompanied by paper packets breaking down requirements and funding numbers. I have these if anyone wants to browse, and Annie Tomasini in VPOTUS office said she's be able to provide them for folks who want them. I also have a list of attendees if anyone wants it and am happy to answer any questions.

 

Readout - The afternoon portion of the conference was very technical but interesting for all the local officials in the room (about 80).

 

Overall theme was of getting it right, transparency, and theme of questioners was making sure that states don't impede projects or favor wealthy or rural communities over the smaller metropolitan areas.

 

Unlike earlier portion of the day when Devaney and VPOTUS were the headliners, this was one presentation after another from departments of Transportation, Education, Labor, EPA, Homeland Security, Agriculture, Interior and Justice. OMB's deputy controller Danny Werfel closed the conference.

 

Tick tock and general breakdown of each agency presentation -

 

Cecilia Munoz from intergovernmental affairs kicked off the afternoon session with a promise: "This is the start of a conversation, this is not the only time we expect to see you."

 

"We're really grateful for your energy and your participation," she said. "We hope you had some caffeine at lunch because you've got like eight more departments to go."

 

Adm. Thomas Barrett of Transportation was next, outlining the fabulously named TIGER program (transportation investment generating economic recovery).

 

"We're moving it out the door as quickly as we can," he said, adding they plan to have a strategic plan for high speed rail in place and reported by mid-April.

 

Several agencies pitched their Web sites and FAQ sections.

 

"If FAQ aren't useful, send email and we'll try to turn it around in 24 hours," Barrett said. "We're going to try and answer your questions as quickly and as accurately a we can."

 

He also stressed that it is important for everyone to understand transparency requirements are going to be much tougher than they are used to and they are asking for more disclosure about the spending projects than is required by law and added they "can't pay for spa treatments" or other improper uses.

 

"We cannot have projects that are waste," Barrett said, and promised both scheduled and unscheduled monitoring of the contract process to make sure it's on the up-and-up.

 

An official from St. Louis, Mo. said the state requires the money to go to the economically distressed areas, but some of the hardest hit areas haven't had the money to get projects to the "shovel-ready" status required by the stimulus bill, while wealthy areas "can pull plans off the shelf."

 

Someone from administration stood and told him that was "good feedback" and "very helpful for us."

 

The St. Louis official added the city has "virtually no funds" for transit, and is expecting 40 percent cuts to the bus routes and metro system.

 

Another official asked Barrett to "use your hammer" and make sure the states distribute the money equitably. He told them the governors must certify that stimulus projects meet the requirement of being a prudent use of taxpayer money.

 

An official from California worried that the state government would just "wipe out transit dollars entirely" because lawmakers "fought like a bunch of babies over the budget."

 

An official from Cleveland talked about a law there that requires projects hire local residents, and worried that might be a snag for getting the stimulus money.

 

"We're sensitive to the fact you have to comply with your local laws," Barrett said.

 

Raymond Uhalde spoke on behalf of Labor Department, and this seemed to be the toughest one for the folks in the room to pay attention to.

 

He spoke about unemployment benefits, help for local offices where people are job seeking and grants for youth summer work programs.

Of note he said he'd like to sync up other elements of stimulus, having some youth programs be geared toward apprenticeships for construction and other infrastructure work.

 

He said it's a "pipeline" to growing the local economy.

 

Uhalde also said the Labor Dept will be doing a risk assessment to see where local agencies need help in April or May.

 

Tony Miller, COO of Dept. of Education spoke next, detailing the money that is going out for education grants and POTUS plan for teacher performance pay that he said was "admittedly controversial."

 

He said the government expects the governors and school superintendents will be working together and that it's less about "who controls the money but that the money is used effectively."

 

He warned the local officials they would need to use a dual tracking system because "all recovery act monies will need to be tracked separately."

 

"At the end of the day if it's about doing something faster and not being prudent or going slower and not being prudent, go slower," he said.

"It's better to go slower and use them wisely."

 

He asked them to evaluate their internal controls - where most failures begin, he said - to make sure the localities will be able to account for the spending.

 

"This is not to scare folks, but it is to say there is going to be a level of accountability," he said, adding they will be doing Webinars to guide people through the process.

 

Brian de Vallance from the Dept. of Homeland Security told the famous joke about Udall going into the barber shop in New Hampshire (Google it) and everyone laughed, he told them to "be wary of federal experts."

 

But he also stressed that accountability is the administration's top priority from the president to the vice president and down.

 

He attempted to show a video of Secretary Napolitano, quipping, "Not a single recovery dollar was harmed in the making of this video," but it didn't work so he moved on.

 

He said 17 airports have bid on a new explosive detection system through TSA, and joked about the Coast Guard, "The secretary comes from a landlocked state - we don't know much about the Coast Guard."

 

In an issue that especially sparked my interest, he said Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are a real example of problems and outlined some ways FEMA will be improving, including a new arbitration process to free up the backlog that Sec. Napolitano talked about two weeks ago in New Orleans.

 

"Things have really dragged ... there's a lot to be really done down there," he said.

 

"This is going to help resolve a lot of these outstanding issues" that involve "hundreds of millions of dollars - unresolved because no one can get to any sort of agreement."

 

The presentation from the Interior Department (sorry didn't catch presenter's name) detailed funding for parks, tribal schools and other natural resources.

 

When he got to a slide depicting a volcano eruption, he joked it was "a consequences of not funding USGS."

 

"They use this in their budget meetings," he said, and everyone laughed.

 

Laurie Robinson told everyone to "feel free" to pretend her Dept. of Justice presentation was the seventh inning stretch, and the group cheered and stood. "You've been sitting for a very long time," she told them. She said crime is one of the downsides of the economic crisis.

 

She also announced some news that on Thursday they will be putting up the solicitations for discretionary programs through DOJ, and they will be open for 30 to 60 days. She asked officials to apply through the grant management system because she worries Grants.gov would be overloaded with requests.

 

DOJ will "try to turn these around very quickly, will begin awarding discretionary grants in late April," she said.

 

She anticipates there will be as many as 12,000 new grants created by stimulus but said DOJ has a history of doing a lot of grants quickly.

 

Timothy Quinn, director of COPS program at DOJ, said it was important that local communities know they need to keep the new officers they hire in place beyond the stimulus funds, which lasts 3 years.

 

"You have to keep the positions that we fund," Quinn said. "The fourth year of retention will be on the locality."

 

He said it might make more sense if localities "plan and budget almost as if you did not know the COPS grant was available" and plan as a "reflection of local economic conditions."

 

Craig Hooks from EPA said his last prepared remark was going to be his contact info, but "perhaps my last line should have been what's the closest happy hour?" The group cheered.

 

He said the EPA stimulus projects aren't for creation of new programs, and said the goals are to focus "long beyond" the short term.

 

Bill Hagy, from Dept. of Agriculture, outlined where they are spending stimulus money.

 

Danny Werfel, Deputy Controller of the Office of Federal Financial Management within OMB, told the group that OMB is coming up with definitions for things such as the definition of a completed project and standards for collecting information on state and local stimulus spending.

 

He said they are deciding whether localities and states will report through a central federal government portal or separately through agencies.

 

He said the goal is the guidance will be out in early April and would allow for public comment.

 

"It's a race to get these things together," he said.

 

My tally found the representative from Cleveland asked the most questions, followed by the representative from San Francisco.

 

Christina Bellantoni

White House Correspondent

The Washington Times

 

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