Thursday, July 28, 2011

Feds: ‘Here’s some stimulus money.’ Locals: ‘Thanks!’

This just in from the Bureau of Not Surprising: the feds have lacked oversight over stimulus funds issued to local agencies for transportation projects. Equally not surprising is that the unchecked local agencies have wasted some of it or have spent money without authorization.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General shed light on the noncompliance and lack of proper oversight in an audit of local projects authorized under the American Restoration and Recovery Act – or ARRA – commonly known as the stimulus act of 2009.

Remember ARRA? It was supposed to be big on transportation, but it ended up being more about bailouts for automakers and banks wrapped up in a $787 billion package. Just 6 percent of the total actually went toward transportation by the time everybody piled on for a share. Still, 6 percent of $787 billion is $47 billion, and that’s a lot of money by anyone’s standards.

So where did the transportation money go? Some of it remains unspent, as we found out during a recent congressional hearing. But of the money that has been spent, the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General has found waste or noncompliance in a high percentage of the local shovel-ready projects.

It was proof positive that the Federal Highway Administration wasn’t holding the locals’ feet to the fire to spend the money on target and according to ARRA guidelines.

It’s nothing new.

The OIG began finding similar noncompliance and lack of oversight in preliminary findings shortly after ARRA funds started flowing in 2009. The most recent audit is just a continuation of that finding and with more research.

OIG auditors studied 59 projects carried out by local public agencies in California, Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee. Of those projects, 52 of them had compliance issues. That’s 88 percent for those keeping score.

In a nutshell, some of those compliance issues involved overpayment to contractors. Examples cited in the audit explained how a contractor would bid a certain amount for a project, win the bid, begin the work, and then ask for more money from the local agency.

While it may not be uncommon for a project to run over budget, the OIG pointed out that some of the local public agencies were not even asking why the project was over budget or filling out the proper paperwork to account for the cost increase. Some agencies were simply writing checks for the cost overruns and moving on.

Just in those 52 projects, the OIG found $5 million in noncompliance or waste. Imagine how that would project out to the thousands of projects that received ARRA money?

It’s the Federal Highway Administration’s job to hold feet to the fire where necessary, and the audit shows the agency still isn’t doing a good job.

The public certainly deserves better oversight than they’ve been getting.

Click here to read the full OIG report.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Elected officials more social

Communicating with elected officials for many of us can seem like a daunting task. The average person may envision a series of hoops and hurdles to jump through to actually make their point about an issue with lawmakers. In years past, this might have been a fair assessment, but today it simply holds no water.

It has never been easier for people to let elected officials know what they think about issues of concern.

More than a century ago, the process of communicating with elected officials became easier with the telephone. In recent years, getting in touch with officials was further simplified with email and faxes.

Methods for corresponding with lawmakers continue to evolve with the booming growth of social media websites.

Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube give people even more options when it comes to communicating with elected officials in federal, state and local government.

It is important to note that the growth of online communication is no reason to stop pursuing face-to-face meetings, making a phone call, writing or emailing your elected officials. Those methods are tried-and-true ways to share your opinion.

To the benefit of everyone, more and more federal, state and local officials are using social media.

In particular, governors have mostly caught the social media wave. According to a recent Stateline.org examination of the four social media services, 47 of 50 governors are communicating via Facebook or Twitter. About 70 percent of governors use YouTube to get their messages out by video.

And nearly half of all governors use all four social media sites. See for yourself here.

Of course, the majority of messages put out by governors and other elected officials are essentially press releases. But the good news is that they are reaching out to their constituents to keep them informed about what they are doing and what they think about certain issues.

It is up to constituents to take advantage of the new platforms available, as well as the time-tested methods, to push issues of concern.