Police chiefs cope with complex applications to get stimulus funds

By Joan Mazzolini
Cleveland Plain Dealer

For police chiefs, the federal application for stimulus money to hire new officers was a lot like a high school test, with its multiple-choice questions and 2,000-character essay.

Now the chiefs have to wait while they are rated by the 50 U.S. Department of Justice employees who have been assigned to read all the tests. They don't expect to hear about a decision until September.

The 33-page form for the federal police money is just one of the seemingly endless, time-consuming applications required for a chance at a piece of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The act, designed to stimulate the economy by pumping $787 billion into communities across the country, will bring about $8.2 billion to Ohio.

With the money channeled through federal departments, state agencies and individual counties, the application process has turned out to be a protracted, repetitive and sometimes curious exercise.

"The way it's set up, you could spend every hour of every day pursuing this," said Tom Jordan, community development director for North Royalton, who's on the lookout for money for 20 projects.

Jordan, like every other applicant in the state, started with "letters of interest" or pre-applications to Ohio, whether it is the state or the feds doling out stimulus money.

Jordan said North Royalton has projects in mind for road and water work, safety forces and other infrastructure needs.

But the applications are mushrooming. The city applied at the federal level for several programs but came up with only one $100,000 award for the Police Department. Jordan is now moving on to state and county applications.

"I expect in the next few weeks filling out another 10 applications to the state and county," he said.

City officials everywhere are willing to wade through the morass of multiple applications, with

conflicting deadlines and different requirements when it means needed money for city programs or agencies and jobs created or saved.

The multipage application for police funding shows what cities are willing do for a chance at added money.

For starters, the chiefs had to supply salary and benefit information because the government is paying the entire cost of adding police officers for three years, with the cities required to pay the fourth year.

Add to that population and crime statistics, as well as foreclosure and unemployment rates and number of households in poverty.

And then there is the essay, officially called the Community Policing Plan Narrative. It is required to explain the department's "implementation plan," including community partnerships, related initiatives and how the money would reorient or enhance its mission to community policing.

"There's a lot of applications to go through," said Correy Ray, public-affairs specialist for the U.S. Justice Department, which is administering the grants. "It's a billion-dollar program, and there are $8.3 billion in requests."

Some communities lack expertise to deal with the often-complicated requirements. Companies looking for business are banking on the confusion.

Architects flooded Bedford Heights' fire chief with postcards describing their fire station design experience after his request for federal stimulus money for a new station showed up online.

And other cities submitting requests have been hit with e-mails or phone calls with offers of assistance in filling out applications for federal stimulus money.

A California manufacturer of traffic and pedestrian signal equipment sent glossy brochures to local suburbs this year alerting them to application deadlines and other requirements for infrastructure projects.

"I'm not surprised people are calling cities," said Ohio Air Quality Development Authority chief Mark Shanahan, who's also the state's energy czar.

He said smaller communities might not have the resources needed for the applications, particularly for more-complicated ones soon to be coming out for energy funding.

Even coming up with the rules for applying has been a protracted process.

The Obama administration decided to use established federal agencies to distribute much of the stimulus money.

Many of those federal departments needed time to write applications and rules on how the money can be used - in part to decide how to award the money but also to set up a system to keep track of it and hold communities accountable for using it wisely.

"Some of the delay is waiting for the feds to finish all their rules," Shanahan said, which is particularly true with energy funds. "The federal agencies are under pressure to get the money out the door."

Because of the distribution through multiple agencies and departments, there is no central location or process - besides putting an initial request on the state's Web site - to apply for money.

And for stimulus watchers, there is no one location to easily keep track of what a city or state is receiving in total.

Some money comes through state departments - road and sewer money, for example. But Ohio and other states got extra money that is intended to be awarded through a competitive process.

And agencies that got money directly from the feds through established formulas, such as regional transit and housing authorities, still have a chance to snag more through competitive federal processes.

But at each stage, there's yet another application to fill out with new deadlines and different rules.

But North Royalton's Jordan says things may be looking up.

"As you keep rewriting these for different applications they get better," Jordan said. "And we're doing a lot of cutting and pasting."

Copyright 2009 Plain Dealer Publishing Co.

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