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North Carolina Still Looking for Stimulus Relief

Wilmington Journal, News Report, Cash Michaels Posted: Apr 24, 2009

It's been seven weeks since President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), establishing $787 billion in stimulus funding for massive infrastructure construction, education, healthcare, employment and middle-class tax cuts, all in an effort to jumpstart a crippled economy.

But of the $6.1 billion that has thus far been allotted to North Carolina, beyond several mandated ''shovel-ready'' highway and bridge projects, average citizens, small businesses and nonprofit agencies have seen precious little of it. One reason why no standard distribution or application process has been established by Governor Perdue's NC Office of Economic Recovery and Investment (NCOERI) yet, the White House tells The Carolinian/Wilmington Journal, is because talks are still ongoing between the state and the feds as to what to do, and how to do it.

In many cases, the governing federal and state agencies that will oversee particular streams of stimulus dollars are still devising the rules for distribution and application.
NCOERI (www.ncrecovery.gov/), under Perdue appointee Dempsey Benton, will be responsible for riding herd on the complete process.

Those details will have to be finalized shortly, however, because every state accepting stimulus funding, including North Carolina, will have to start spending it quickly. How the stimulus is spent will fall under the strictest scrutiny when the lion's share of the funding starts in earnest.

Question remains across the state, when does it start?

That's what black small business owners seeking stimulus contracts, and people looking for employment attending last Saturday's Stimulus Town Hall Meeting in predominantly black Southeast Raleigh wanted to know.

The jammed-packed session featured state, county and city elected officials, among others, who all basically agreed that while North Carolina's ultimate stimulus spending game plan hasn't been shared even with them yet, the African-American community must prepare, and remain at the ready, to aggressively pursue opportunities as they become available.

''We must be included,'' said former Raleigh City Councilman Brad Thompson. ''We have to be part of this solution, and that requires participation.''

Many of the presenters made clear that ARRA stimulus funding is not designed to make anyone rich, but rather provide employment and small business opportunities to underserved communities.

''The stimulus moneyis for the purpose of creating jobs here in the state of North Carolina,'' State Senator Vernon Malone (D-Wake) told those gathered. ''And from where I sit at the state level, the creation of jobs is really how we intend to see how this money is spent.''

Those businesses seeking stimulus contracts that specialize in housing, healthcare, education and energy efficiency should aggressively acquaint themselves with the funding requirements from the various government agencies charged with contracting.

Concerns were raised about ensuring that businesses and workers in areas where ARRA funding flows are the priority recipients of jobs and opportunities.

Those qualifying businesses and nonprofits already bonded and registered with the state, county or city that seek ARRA funding must be ready to be fully accountable for contracts and grants they receive.

Small businesses currently not bonded or registered with any government agency to qualify as an approved vendor should call their state, county or local government administration office soon to determine how.

Several officials confirmed that despite concerns about the African-American community being passed by for ARRA opportunities, that there are various levels of transparency and accountability established to assure that how dollars are spent are accounted for.

And if there are problems, the White House has assured that the offending state won't get the second phase of its stimulus allotment until those problems are resolved.

The ARRA Resource Reference Guide issued by US Sen. Kay Hagan's office last week(http://hagan.senate.gov/files/Hagan_ARRA_Resource_Guide_for_NC.pdf ) was also alluded to help interested parties navigate questions they may have.

Participants in the town hall agreed to meet again on April 18.

Some monies are starting to trickle down directly from the federal government, directed at helping low-wealth communities.

The Wilmington Housing Authority is using $1.75 million of its $3 million in stimulus funding to redevelop Nesbitt Court as an affordable housing project for senior citizens.

This week, both Wake and Johnston counties announced that their joint Capital Area Workforce Development Board has been awarded $3,229,421 in a ARRA grant ''to provide jobs for dislocated workers [and] underemployed adults and youth'' for four to six months.

Various law enforcement agencies across
the state have received ARRA grants to upgrade operations and hire more officers.

And several community development corporations, including St. Augustine's College CDC which received a $2.1 million Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant from the NC Commerce Dept. to improve housing in Southeast Raleigh, are seeing ARRA dollars flow.

There's no question that the Obama White House knows that North Carolina is on the stimulus map. Last week, Vice President Joe Biden, who the president charged with overseeing the overall national stimulus effort, was accompanied by US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsac when he visited the small town of Pikeville in Wayne County to promote a $10.4 billion ARRA national program targeting home loans and assisting small rural communities with essential services like fire stations, water treatment and medical personnel.

Pikeville is expected to get $150,000 in grants, and a $1 million loan towards the construction of a new fire station, even though there was some controversy about money already allotted to the project by the prior Bush Administration.

So some stimulus dollars are trickling in, but observers say no enough, thus far, or the African-American community to see a real impact.

According to the state's stimulus funding website, www.ncrecovery.gov/, the state is slated to fund $466 million in ''first phase recovery infrastructure projects that are expected to create and sustain 14,000 jobs across the state,'' with work on all projects (except the Currituck County bridge replacement) mandated to begin by April 27.

''Projects of this magnitude offer an immediate economic benefit to local businesses and contractors, which is good news in these economic times,'' NCDOT Secretary Gene Conti is quoted as saying online. ''We anticipate all areas of North Carolina will see similar benefits as projects begin in those communities.''

There is concern, however, about over $36 million in NC Dept. of Transportation [NCDOT] projects that have already been awarded, and black leadership isn't taking any chances.
On Wednesday, NC NAACP President Rev. William Barber, along with other leaders from across the state, met with Dempsey Benton, Gov. Perdue's point man to oversee how North Carolina spends it's $6.1 billion federal stimulus allotment.

The purpose of the meeting was to ascertain how communities of color could access stimulus opportunities; determine what amounts will be available and for what projects; and what the overall goals or utilizing and improving participation of minority businesses and contractors in state government.

''''We must ensure that the stimulus is not stifled by barriers of race or lukewarm outreach to historically underutilized businesses,'' Rev. Barber says.

Earlier this week, Rev. Barber sent a letter to both North Carolina senators Richard Burr and Kay Hagan, expressing concern that none of the initial contracts or sub-contracts awarded by the NCDOT were to businesses of color.

''We have reason to believe that the billions of dollars of federal stimulus funds that are beginning to be spent in North Carolina are not being [disbursed] equally to all people in our society,'' Barber stated in the April 6 letter.

''For instance, we believe that [11] initial contracts awarded by the [NC] Department of Transportation, worth millions of dollars, all went to white contractors. The DOT only required then to certify they made a ''good faith effort'' to reach out to African-American subcontractors. These funds are all subject to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits race discrimination in these programs.''

Rev. Barber then asked senators Burr and Hagan to establish a ''Title VI Enforcement Office for North Carolina.''

''This office would be readily accessible for North Carolinians to file Title VI complaints when they have reason to believe hey have been deprived of equal opportunities to bid on contracts, submit proposals or grants, or when they have been excluded from other key decisions and information which directly impacts the flow of these funds.''

Rev. Barber copied the letter to Gov. Perdue and Dempsey Benton. Perdue is scheduled to meet with the NCNAACP during a ''civil rights roundtable'' on April 20.

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