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City slowly spending stimulus

More than a year after Congress began channeling billions of stimulus dollars to cities across the nation, only a fraction of the city of Wichita's share has been spent, and it's still impossible to accurately gauge how many jobs it has created or retained.

City Hall — just one of the many local agencies getting funds — is guaranteed about $26 million in stimulus dollars.

So far, $2.6 million of that has been spent and another $4.1 million is being processed or is coming in as block payments, according to the city's February update.

That means Wichita is spending at a slower pace than the money is flowing out of Washington, which has paid out about 40 percent of the roughly $800 billion available.

The spending rate has been slowed because the stimulus came with many new rules, guidelines and reporting requirements that officials had to learn, said Mark Elder, a management analyst in the city's office of urban development.

"Even though they say 'shovel ready' there's still things that have to be done to get things going," he said.

City Manager Robert Layton said exact job numbers won't be known until projects are completed and that many projects are under way or are imminent.

"I feel we've been about as diligent as we can," he said.

City Hall projects

Among City Hall's spending thus far are:

* Five street projects — Hillside, Washington, Broadway, 13th Street and Maize Road.

* Three new hybrid vehicles and a pickup were bought to replace the transit department's aging fleet.

* Hundreds of thousands of dollars are going to fund efficient new heating systems.

* More than $60,000 has been spent to replace damaged sidewalks in low-income neighborhoods.

* More than $36,000 will be given to those who might go homeless without help paying utility bills.

* A new rescue vehicle was bought for Wichita's Mid-Continent Airport.

* And the city has hired two new police officers that it will have to pay for out of its own coffers after three years.

The state, county, school districts, small business administration and other agencies also have money that is being spent, but is not accounted for here.

Council skeptical

Some council members say they don't think the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which is the term many council members use to avoid the stigma of the word "stimulus," is the best way to save jobs or a wise way to spend.

"It's pretty much temporary work," said council member Sue Schlapp who has frequently criticized stimulus spending. "These are not permanent jobs, and we need to be real careful to make sure we understand that."

Council member Jeff Longwell said many of the projects are needed, such as energy-efficiency upgrades.

"Awesome, great," he said. "But I'm not sure it's worth the cost we've paid, and it's impossible to evaluate that because so many projects haven't reach a stage where they're stimulating the economy."

Vice Mayor Jim Skelton said improving roads is a no-brainer, but he worries about the debt the stimulus creates. He said he doesn't believe it stimulates job creation.

"It stimulates the government is what it's doing," he said.

The city doesn't have exact job creation or retention figures. But some city departments have reported those figures.

For example, the career development office added three new jobs and retained 12 others; the housing department says 14 jobs will be generated by sidewalk repairs; 27 jobs were retained or created in transit; one new worker was hired in environmental service; two police officers; and one employee at the airport.

Other departments may have added or retained jobs but have not reported them.

An analysis of federal data shows an estimate of 148 jobs in Wichita created or retained, though that includes projects administered by agencies besides City Hall.

In a recent report, the White House showed about 19,000 jobs have been created or retained in Kansas, although a change in the definitions makes it difficult to know whether those jobs would have been added without the stimulus.

Mayor Carl Brewer, who has been supportive of stimulus projects, said the city is being careful not to produce any horror stories of people getting stimulus money who don't qualify or have half-baked projects.

But he said many people are without jobs and the city's budget is strapped.

"We'd like all the help we can possibly get," he said.