Is stimulus headache just beginning?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Trying to account for $35 million when no one else has been keeping track is bound to cause a few headaches.

But our staff certainly didn’t realize just how bad the aches would be a month ago when we decided to begin work on a story outlining every drop of stimulus money that has come into our community.

The story published Sunday, but I certainly can’t say we accomplished our goal.

In fact, I’d be surprised if our list was comprehensive and entirely correct.

Shoddy reporting, you say?

Perhaps, but we did the best we could with the information available to us. In fact, even the state auditor summed up their statewide effort in a similar fashion.

“We feel we know as much as you can know about what has come into Mississippi,” Auditor Stacey Pickering said.

But he didn’t say they knew it all.

In fact, Pickering said the opposite.

“There is not a comprehensive list that exists out there.”

That’s right, the federal government sent out billions of dollars with no tracking device attached.

Maybe I’m too nave, but that realization shocked me a few weeks ago.

I remember national news reports — even President Obama interrupting my favorite Must See TV — talking about how the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 would “foster greater accountability and transparency in the use of funds.”

The countless wads of taxpayer dollars that would be spent across our nation to create jobs would be closely watched, scrutinized and tracked.

Not so much.

The tracking method that went into place the day President Obama signed ARRA was, according to its own “About” page,

“The site’s primary mandate is to give taxpayers user-friendly tools to track Recovery funds — how and where they are spent — in the form of charts, graphs, and maps that provide national overviews down to specific zip codes,” the site says.

But poke around further and you’ll see that the site clearly says all its data is “recipient reported.”

That means, if someone who received stimulus dollars failed to properly fill out the online form and enter it into the Web site, the information is not there or is not correct.

Furthermore, the federal government did not appropriate any funds to the states to track the dollars coming their way.

After our staff realized that wasn’t going to be a perfect source, we began calling every local agency we could think of that received dollars.

All were cooperative and willing to provide information, but in the end, their numbers didn’t necessarily match those online.

Who is right? I don’t know.

Luckily, the auditor’s office wants to know.

Pickering and staff touted the work they are doing to track stimulus money.

Due largely to experience handling federal dollars after Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi has become a bit of a pro at tracking fraud. The Mississippi Legislature and Gov. Haley Barbour approved a plan to spend stimulus money to track stimulus money. It’s a novel idea, and one that apparently wasn’t repeated around the country.

Pickering said he believes Mississippi is far ahead of other states when it comes to following the stimulus money. They haven’t released fraud investigation details yet, but he said information is coming soon. And fraud is out there.

Our staff’s headache subsided a bit with the completion of the story, but our country’s pain may be only beginning.

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551.